Movie Review – Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
Where the Wild Things Are is director Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the widely revered children’s picture book by Maurice Sendak. The screenplay by Jonze and Dave Eggers of necessity expands on the 10-line book to fit the storytelling needs and running time of a feature film, amplifying the boy’s adventure among the wild things, delving deeper into its psychological subtext, and contextualizing the fantasy with an extended real-world prelude and epilogue.
Max (Max Records) is an unhappy boy of about nine years. His unhappiness is acutely felt and very ordinary. His parents are divorced. He lives with his mother (Catherine Keener); she is loving, but distracted by work and a boyfriend. His older sister is a teenager with no time for a kid brother. Max is lonely and sensitive, retreating for comfort into the world of his imagination.
The prelude introduces the people and circumstances that inform Max’s “visit” to the land of the wild things. It also subtly establishes the child’s mind’s eye perspective that underlies the central fantasy. The camera holds closely to Max and photographs him within a tight frame; camera movement is tied to Max, running or being still with him. When the camera looks at other characters, they are seen from Max’s pov. Time passes the way a child experiences it. Events are disconnected and the change of season (from winter to early spring) is the only objective marker that the prelude covers a period of some months.
In contrast, Max subjectively experiences his adventure with the wild things over a period of days if not weeks, although by the real-world clock no more than a few hours can have gone by. Once inside his imaginary world, the camera moves freely. Reflecting Max’s simultaneous longing for secure closeness and free mobility, the claustrophobic enclosures of the real-world settings are largely supplanted by wide open spaces (forest, desert, and ocean) photographed in panoramic views.
The wild things themselves are composites. Individuals with distinctive personalities, they are also manifestations of Max’s thoughts and emotions; the balance of elements varies from one wild thing to another. Some are further complicated by also representing the mother and sister, or more properly- since everything in this world is a projection of Max’s psyche- the mother and sister as they exist in relation to Max. The wild thing who is closest to being a direct embodiment of Max is Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini); K. W. (Lauren Ambrose) is close to a pure mother/sister figure. Other wild things are voiced by Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, and Paul Dano.
Where the Wild Things Are is a dense, precise construction, but not all its pleasures are intellectual. It may be the type of film usually consigned to limited release on the arthouse circuit, but it was made on a blockbuster’s budget. The production design is a wonderful evocation of a child’s imagination and the creature effects invite the viewer to reach through the screen to touch the matted fur.
3 1/2 stars