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Where the Wild Things Are

Released: 2009

Genre: Kids & Family

Runtime: 1 hr 41 min

MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Spike Jonze

Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker

Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the classic children’s book.

75% classic, 25% letdown.

Review by: MiamiMovieCritic

Added: 7 years ago

Spike Jonze’s long-awaited adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book is 75% classic, 25% letdown. I was rooting for it the whole way – even when it fell apart in the last 20 minutes.

Initial reports claimed the film was too dark for children and lacked narrative momentum, but the real problem is the wild things. They’re so emotionally fragile that by the end they’ve worn out their welcome.

Where the Wild Things Are is about a 9-year-old named Max, played by likable newcomer Max Records. (This being a Spike Jonze movie, he’s got a spiffy pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars on his feet.) An imaginative, seemingly friendless boy, Max amuses himself by wrassling with his dog and building an igloo in his front yard. He throws a tantrum when some bigger kids smash his igloo, and throws another one when his mother’s boyfriend shows up. This is a kid who’s very much in touch with his angry side.

These early scenes are like the Auntie Em scenes in The Wizard of Oz; they set up characters and situations that will pay off later. When the teenagers destroy Max’s igloo, he’s trapped underneath and briefly in danger of suffocating. Later, we see a globe that was given to him by his dad, who’s out of the picture now; the inscription reads, “The owner of this world.” Both of these scenes resonate deeply in Max’s fantasy life. The reason the fantasy stuff works so well is because Jonze has made Max’s domestic life seem so real. He makes us understand what it feels like to be in this kid’s shoes.

After Max’s second tantrum, he runs away from home. It’s at this point that the film takes on the logic of a dream. He commandeers a sailboat, which carries him to a magical island. The island is populated by big furry creatures that want to eat him. Fortunately, he’s able to talk them out of it, and they agree to make him their king instead.

The wild things are given distinct personalities and character problems. Carol (James Gandolfini) has the biggest anger management issues. KW (Lauren Ambrose) is the rebel of the group, while Judith (Catherine O’Hara) is the scariest and most sarcastic. My personal favorite is Alexander (Paul Dano), who says something that provokes a sad kind of laughter: “Does anybody ever hear me?”

Jonze fills the island sequences with visual wonders. The wild things have a “war” that looks like the coolest snowball fight ever. And just wait until you see the epic fort Max builds with his new friends. The movie’s depiction of an alternate kind of family life is genuinely touching. It’s pretty hilarious too, especially in the scenes with KW’s friends, Bob and Terry.

As for the wild things being too dark and scary, I think all of that works beautifully up to a point. After all, these are supposed to be manifestations of Max’s loneliness and fear. (When he becomes king, the main concern the wild things have is whether he can “keep out the sadness.”) But the story turns sour when everyone gets their feelings hurt at the end of the “war.” The fun starts to seep out of the movie at that point, and we’re left waiting impatiently for Max to return home.

Flawed as it is, Where the Wild Things Are is a movie I think many people will fall in love with: with the characters, the images and the fantastic soundtrack (by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.) Others will simply scratch their heads. What’s undeniable is that Jonze has gotten a wonderful performance out of Max Records. Acting (for the most part) opposite giant puppets, the kid shows off some amazing powers of make-believe. In doing so, he makes us believe too.