REVIEW: Where the Wild Things Are [2009]

“Will you keep out all the sadness?”

A few weeks back I went into Barnes and Noble to acquire a novel with a friend. While she was in the children’s section seeking some Spanish books to use with her students I moseyed on over to the illustrated nook whereupon I spied Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Remembering the cover image and very little else, I decided to flip through the pages and refresh my mind before catching the new adaptation in theatres. Surprising to me, each spread contained barely five to ten words, so I looked to make sure my friend was busy rummaging through literature and steadied myself for a quick read. Simple yet endearing, the tale recalled a sense of innocence and warmth for the family and loved ones in our lives for which we may take for granted too often. How this five minute read could be turned into a 90-minute film was beyond me, but if anyone could do it, I had faith in Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, he being the one that showed the world what it’s like to go inside John Malkovich’s head. A round of applause for the two of them because their version of Where the Wild Things Are hits all its marks—emotionally, visually, intellectually, and morally—making it quite the wild rumpus of the heart.

The movie is rated PG, but I will say that its dark overtones could be a bit much for really young children. Is it to the point where rumors swirled that it might have been completely re-shot due to Jonze’s vision being too scary for its target audience? I don’t think so, but buyer be warned anyway. Sendak’s book shows a glimpse of temper and anger, a child acting out after not getting what he wants, soon becoming the king of a band of giant monsters looking for direction much like him. These beasts are the manifestations of our sorrow, our frustration, and our demons; they are the voices living within us, kept down by self-control and overcome by happiness and love. However, when those emotions are brought to life, unchecked, the end result can be nothing short of war, retribution, and malice. It becomes the duty of young Max, the creator of this imaginary world, to not only discover the love he has waiting back at home, but also to defeat the anger that has been bubbling to the surface, allowing him to even bite his mother in this cinematic version. We all need some time to let loose and run wild—howling to the moon—it is what we do after the burst of energy subsides that counts. Sometimes looking into a mirror is the only chance we have of becoming the people we should and hope to be.

Eggers and Jonze add so much depth to the tale, creating a world and life for Max, (Max Records), to take for granted. His father is no longer at home; his mother, (Catherine Keener), is busy supporting the family when not trying her best to cultivate Max’s imagination and court a new boyfriend, (Mark Ruffalo); and his sister is at the age where acting cool for her friends trumps any remorse or sibling bond with a lonely and tossed aside brother. As KW, (Lauren Ambrose), says later on in the film, “It’s hard being a family”. Everyone is trying their best and working hard to stick together, but as Judith, (Catherine O’Hara), ponders, “Happiness isn’t always the best way to become happy”. Loneliness is a huge theme here, and we all face it, even when surrounded by people we live with and cherish. To be able to accept others, one must always be able to accept oneself. This becomes the biggest obstacle for Max to overcome, right alongside his fantastical equal in Carol, (James Gandolfini). The two are kindred spirits, wanting to stay in the past where they remember happier times, throwing tantrums and fits if they don’t get their way, unknowingly pushing those they want closer, further away as a result.

It is some weighty stuff to deal with for both children and adults alike; a parable that spans all ages with its intrinsic focus on compromise, sharing, and seeing what is right in front of us for the pure gift it can be. Kudos to the filmmakers for never shying away from the darkness that inhabits each and every one of us; when the world begins to crumble, characters get angry, cause destruction, or cower in fright at what may happen next. We all fear the unknown, we all get scared when we see someone we love in trouble, but sometimes we forget that those by our side fear for us too when it is we who are lost. The true success of this story and film lies in the little things, like Alexander, (Paul Dano really adding some feeling to this ram-like beast), and Douglas, (the always wonderful Chris Cooper), knowing the game going on with Max, but trying their best to let the others be happy, even at the detriment of their own joy. Here are the two unselfish creatures in a land of egos. The other “wild things” prop up the film as well, however, in their vocal performances as well as puppetry. If you ever thought that costumed monsters from Jim Henson Studios couldn’t make you cry, or at least feel something, you will know they can before the end credits roll.

Where the Wild Things Are needs these fantastical beings to have the emotional range of a human being in order to succeed. It also needs young Max Records to bear a large portion of the weight on his shoulders; he is alone onscreen with the “wild things” for about eighty percent of the film. I will admit to being pretty confident on the first point, but a bit skeptical on the second after watching the trailer, (how beautiful is that mini-movie with Arcade Fire playing in the background?). However, I was completely wrong about Records, because his innocence is what keeps this tale pure. His childlike expressions of joy and fright are utterly realistic, taking him on a journey inside himself, discovering what it is to grow up and accept responsibility for oneself and those around him. As for the wild bunch of half animals/half humans—they are absolutely brilliant. The art direction is phenomenal and the use of practical effects meshed with CGI, (mostly in the faces), provides a sense of realism that fully computerized beings never could. Heck, even that Karen O soundtrack that I was so disappointed in last week became a magical score that breathed life into this classic story. I truly believe this film will become the treasured piece of art that its source material has. It deserves all the praise it gets for its ability to touch each audience member to the core, without ever preaching. It will touch you on a level so pure that you won’t know what hit you, and you’ll be remembering it hours afterwards, wanting to find that person you love so as to give them a hug to let them know how important they are to you.

Where the Wild Things Are 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] MAX RECORDS as Max in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Legendary Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ adventure film “Where the Wild Things Are,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] (L-R) PAUL DANO as Alexander, JAMES GANDOLFINI as Carol, CATHERINE O’HARA as Judith, FOREST WHITAKER as Ira, MAX RECORDS as Max and MICHAEL BERRY JR. as The Bull in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Legendary Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ adventure film “Where the Wild Things Are,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


4 Thoughts to “REVIEW: Where the Wild Things Are [2009]”

  1. Brian


    I love your review of this movie, it truely strikes the way I feel about the film that Jonze and his admirable cast and crew have created. I was read this story as a child by my parents and when I first saw the preview for it (which is an amazing mini-movie in its own right) I had high hopes for the film adaption. It was one of my favorite books as a kid, and the movie did it a great justice but staying true to the original themes and expanding and layering on a more encompassing and powerful message. I am also glad Jonze did not steer away from the darkness and lonelines of the Wild Things. This movie stuck a pure and primal note in me because the characters and dialogue are so deep and slightly hauting. Excellent review and excellent movie! Just a note, I don’t think Max’s Dad is dead because in one of the opening scenes his sister mentions while on the phone with her friends that she ” can’t go out because is going to see her Dad this weekend”. I think Max’s parents are divorced, maybe recently, which would add to the loneliness and anger Max feels. Death would too, but I feel divorced parents stikes a stonger note with much of the audiance today, it did with me. Anyway, just something I picked up from watching, I will go howl at the moon now.


  2. It was brought to my attention about the Dad not being dead. I must have just missed that line. I guess the abandonment issues of divorce would resonate a bit more, a ‘he had a choice and left’ feeling. Thanks much for reading, it is a great movie.

  3. […] the Wild Things Are, review: It is not easy to turn a beloved children’s tale full of nostalgia and happy memories into a […]

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