It’s not the shaggy, volatile, 9ft monsters that scare the bejesus out of you in Spike Jonze’s gorgeously imaginative and melancholy take on Maurice Sendak’s storybook classic.
Rather, it’s the raw emotions the director puts front and centre in this tale of nine-year old runaway Max, who tames an island of rumpusing creatures as badly behaved as himself.
Jonze’s creatures, though captivatingly strong and quirky, are massive furry balls of loneliness, need, jealousy and rage. They beautifully externalise all the emotions scudding through mixed-up Max (the pitch-perfect Max Records), whose broken home and frazzled mum (an understated Catherine Keener), are brilliantly evoked in a heartbreaking opening act.
Shot from a child’s-eye view, full of fury and longing and flurries of rowdiness and regret, it may be the best thing in the movie. Once Max has set sail to the land of the Wild Things, terrifying beasts who play and squabble exuberantly like giant schoolkids across the lushly beautiful forests and deserts of their fantasy island, the film’s hand is relatively less sure.
The monsters themselves are an expressive triumph, merging subtle facial CG with costumes from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and the alternately chatty and fear-invoking voicework of talent like Catherine O’Hara and Chris Cooper. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers even make them an engagingly dysfunctional family, whose creative but dangerously disruptive Carol (James Gandolfini) cosies up to Max’s boastful new king.
Yet Jonze seems slightly at a loss to resolve the tangle that results once Max’s childish recipe for keeping everyone happy (building a giant bower-bird’s nest of a club-house, starting a fierce, exhilarating dirt-clod fight) fails to stop the in-fighting.
Sure, we understand that this extraordinary and ambivalent world is a fascinating projection of Max’s psyche. But the lack of a clear-cut conflict, or an actual baddie, starts to pall once Max is exposed as a fraud and the movie’s low-key denouement feels like a dying fall.
Kidults and thoughtful tweens or teens will thrill to its childhood insights, but others may wish for a little less emo-emoting and Karen O’s shrill soundtrack whooping, and a jot more plot.
Still, you can’t fault Jonze’s accomplishment in creating a fully realised and distinctive vision of the book. Its visual panache alone is extraordinary (check out the vast greenscreens and crew involved, as seen in the weeny webisode extras) and it’s a huge and satisfying sideways step for him as a director.
The movie has a glorious simplicity that almost makes Being John Malkovich look overcooked, but it’s not quite enough. Like the all-consuming Wild Things, you’re left wanting more to chew on.
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