Maurice Sendak, author of the classic children’s book that inspired Where The Wild Things Are, was asked recently what he would say to any parents who feel the film is too scary.
“I would tell them to go to hell,” he replied. “If they [the kids] can’t handle it, go home. Or wet your pants.”
We’re not mad-keen on the weeing part, but he has a point. Director Spike Jonze didn’t set out to make a kids’ film. He set out to make a film about kids. Bad call? After all, the source material is a pre-school favourite – a gorgeous 10-sentence fable first published in 1963 exploring the value of imagination.
Naughty Max is sent to bed without supper after making mischief in his wolf suit. In his room a forest grows. Then an ocean tumbles by. So Max sets sail to where the wild things are and becomes their king. Sure, it’s a bit scary – there are monsters – but by the end Max has learned his lesson and returns home to find his dinner still warm. Twinning a pared-down narrative with panoramic pics of freaky-furry fiends, the book lets nippers face their fears while holding their hands at the same time.
While Jonze’s movie is true to the spirit of the book and replicates its look fastidiously, it’s a different beast altogether. It’s bloody frightening for one. His 9ft tall furred and feathered creatures (actors in costumes with CGI touch-ups to add expressive nuance) are uncanny creations that could have walked straight off Sendak’s pages.
But the ravaged remains of previous ‘Kings’ strip away any sense of safety. Indeed, there are hints of violence throughout, from the early threats from sulky Judith (Catherine O’Hara) to eat Max (Max Records), up to tempestuous Carol’s (James Gandolfini) tantrums and tendency to smash things. It’s all cloaked in a heavy cloud of sadness, too – the wild things are lonely, insecure, frightened and unhappy. They cry, they fall out, they get hurt.
So, has Jonze messed up by turning a kiddie classic into a scary and depressing rant? Hell no. Wild Things is one of the purest evocations of childhood you’ll ever see. It’s a true voyage of the imagination, for Max and the viewer alike. It’s not an intellectual experience but a deeply emotional trip, one that’s profoundly personal. It’s visceral. Experiential. Sensual. A film to be felt and to fall in love with. It’s a daydream, a fantasy and an escape. An hour-and-a-half where you can soak yourself in uncensored, vicarious sensation. Adults just don’t get to act like wild things most of the time. We have to be responsible and pragmatic, reasonable and diplomatic. We don’t get to scream and shout and beat our fists without rebuke. We don’t get to stand on a clifftop and howl. So sod the kids. This one’s ours.
Sendak first approached Jonze to take on the adaptation a full 10 years ago, after he saw the director’s Being John Malkovich. Author Dave Eggers (Away We Go) came on board to write the script. It’s hard to imagine a better team. Jonze’s vision, attention to detail and sense of humour add flair, joy, beauty and magic. Check out those landscapes, for example. Untamed forests and endless sand dunes. The romance and nostalgia he evokes with just the early evening sunlight poking through the trees. Then there are the obsessive intricacies of the tiny replica world that Carol painstakingly builds (which bring to mind John Cusack’s marionettes in Malkovich).
Meanwhile, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Eggers – who at age 21 had to take responsibility for raising his eight-year-old brother after his parents died – clearly has an acute understanding of the pain, loss, anger and fear that are as much a part of childhood as snow fights and fortresses. Stretching such minimal material into a feature-length script could have been disastrous, but Jonze’s film adds, develops and enriches the original without spoiling a thing.
So what’s new? Notably the wild things – they’ve now been given names, lines and personalities. Each is a part of Max – Carol his creativity and recklessness, Judith his negativity, Alexander (Paul Dano) his fear and insecurity, Ira (Forest Whitaker) his neediness and KW (Lauren Ambrose) his relationship with his sister and his mother. The odd new character is added. A fort is built. They play war. Arguments flare up.
Detractors will call the film both slight and padded (like that’s fair) but it’s a disservice to mistake simplicity for triviality. It is what it is – a highly emotional, immersive, regressive journey. As such, it’s unlikely to appeal to everyone. But on its own terms it’s hard to see how it could be any more perfect.
Where The Wild Things Are will make you laugh like a lunatic and cry like a child. And, yes, maybe even wet your pants.
A poignant dissection of youth with nine-foot furry monsters, gorgeous production design, frenetic camerawork and a playful, wistful score from Karen O. Never mind the little ones. This beauty will have most grown-ups blubbing.