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Where the Wild Things Are (2009) – Movie Review

Where the Wild Things Are movie poster

Written by: Dave Eggers & Spike Jonze, based on the book by Maurice Sendak
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Paul Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker

My Advice: Don’t miss it.

Max (Records) is a young, imaginative energetic boy. He has a sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and a mother (Keener). His father is not present. His energy is sometimes constructive, like building a fort-igloo to store snowballs in (although the snowballs were going to be used to wage war, naturally). Or building a fort-rocketship to explore the heavens. But sometimes he puts on a wolf costume and basically goes apeshit. Or wolfshit. After one of his more violent tantrums, he runs away. Far away. To an island populated by Wild Things. And there, he is declared king. And as king, he will make everything better. And protect his subjects from loneliness. Honest.

It was to be expected that a beloved children’s book being made into a film–a live-action film at that–was to be suspect. Mostly because the book itself clocks in at a whopping forty-eight pages. And how do you make a feature film out of that, animated or otherwise? I only felt a glimmer of hope when I heard Spike Jonze had taken on the project, since I figured only he and Michel Gondry were the sort of director who could pull this off.

[ad#longpost]And my faith was well-founded. The movie is…something else. It’s, as you might have guessed, not the book. It does use the book to jump off to its own entity. And as a result creates something that’s complicated, deep, moving and profound. It’s an achingly accurate portrait of being a boy. The weird synthesis of wanting to be a sweet, to be a brother, to be a son, to be good…and yet sometimes, sometimes, you just want to break shit. It’s a destructive urge that’s hard to explain but is captured perfectly in the film. Not just in the film, but in the presence of Max…Records positively nails everything he’s handed: from impotent adolescent rage to fear to love to longing.

In discussions after seeing the film, I came to the conclusion that it’s actually the male response to The Wizard of Oz. In Oz Dorothy goes to a magical land and meets fantastical creatures who she befriends, then they go on a jolly but moderately scary adventure that ends up with her home safe and sound. In Wild Things, however, Max goes to an island filled with untameable beasts where they like nothing better than to light things on fire and blow shit up. It’s literally a boy’s dream come true.

Except it’s not just a dream because on the island there’s bitterness. And loneliness. And threats. And everything that one faces as part of growing up, personified (wildthingified?) in the many beasts. And the beasts are fantastic. From what I understand you’ve got performers in real Henson Creature Workshop suits with CG used for the faces–which makes sense, because the faces are heartbreakingly emotive. The voices work well also–with James Gandolfini as lead Carol, and the other standouts Paul Dano as Alexander (the goat) and Lauren Ambrose as kindly KW.

The one drawback to the film is that because it seems to work so well as a portrait of male adolescence and change, I wonder how women take to it. Having seen it with two women, neither of whom felt as moved by it as I did, I’m curious to see how other women felt about it. (That’s what the comments are for.)

I think there’s something about 2009 that makes it the year of the depressingly good family film. Up will stay with me for a long time and so will this film. I think it’s brave and smart and expects its audience to be the same: it refuses to spoonfeed what it’s doing to anyone. And the more I think about and dissect what I’ve seen in the film, the deeper I dig into it, the more I like it. Highly recommended.

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  • You want a woman’s perspective? I’m a mother of 5 and my youngest (a 6 yr old girl) lives in a fantasy dinosur world most of her waking hours. she canot sit at eh table and eat normally. she must “disembowel” every meal that’s infront of her. Trust me when I say that wanting to slay dragons and rescue others is not a boy thing. Nor is wanting to destroy stuff and raise shit. All children have a slight version of that desire simmering in them, although most have learned to control it.
    When I first read this book to my oldest child over 15 years ago, I couldn’t believe that any child could have an imagination that strong. And if they could, I did not believe that any parent of worth would actually allow that type of imagination to thrive.
    Well, God decided to prove me wrong with the personality of my last child.
    This movie has stayed true to the original intent of the book, while at the same time, taking the book to a whole new level.
    When I decided to take my “special” daughter to see the movie I was thrilled to see that she could connect at a level I’ve never witnessed before. After leaving the theatre, she and I could actually talk about the film for a while and she actually acted like a human (sharing opinions) for a moment or two before retreating back into her fantasy world again.
    lthough I can’t comment on the technical aspects of this film, I can certainly praise the therapeutics value of it by saying that we plan to watch it over and over again.

  • More pre-sold, pred-digested, over-produced,
    decades stale slop for our glutted and creatively
    bankrupt comfort-zone. All this from the
    long rich and ALWAYS well-connected ‘daring
    fresh outsider’ —SPIKE JONZE.

    —Kids -you been had!

  • I’m a woman, and this film spoke to me deeply. It’s so interesting how different people have different reactions. I LOVED the film, but I could literally feel the audience around me getting angry at it. At the end, everyone was silent, and everyone seemed angry. One guy said, “Sucked!” and stormed out with his friends. It was the oddest thing. I have never witnessed anything like that before.

    I think the fact that it bothered a lot of people says something profound. I think a lot of people can relate to that young, helpless feeling of “the sun’s gonna die?” That feeling that no one will listen to you, and you’re angry at the world. And you’re scared, because you’re beginning to see the world as it really is, and you don’t know how to cope. And perhaps they don’t want to think about that old feeling anymore.

    I was a lot like Max when I was 11/12. In fact, I think I still am, underneath it all. And perhaps we all still feel like him, but we’re able to hide from it, push it down. And people went in thinking they would see an awesome, funny adventure, but instead they were faced with their own end-of-childhood demons.