The 338-word story of Max last name unknown, emotional state tumultuous, willingness to obey dubious has been a bedtime favorite of wild things everywhere since not long after its 1963 publication. That makes nearly five decades’ worth of fans, many of whom have been harboring the disquieting fear that the universality of Maurice Sendak’s Max, who so exquisitely embodies the inherent storminess of all small beings, would be marred by Spike Jonze’s cinematic adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.
This is a reasonable qualm, but as Max might say, “Now stop!” Jonze, chronicler of uncertain adulthood in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, has done a masterly job of bringing Sendak’s work to the screen. He has broken one Hollywood doctrine: the notion that children’s cinema is best devised for miniature couch potatoes who require a steady stream of laughs, action sequences and references to flatulence. Even the best American children’s movies, like those made by Pixar, embed their heartfelt messages in what are fundamentally entertainments. The mysterious emotional turmoil and, let’s face it, weirdness that every parent deals with on a daily basis can be found in the films of the great Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki but seem to have been deemed off-limits in America. The beauty of Where the Wild Things Are is that for all its fantastical elements, it’s a work of realism, an exploration of mood and emotion. Like Sendak’s book, which on initial publication was considered too edgy and creepy by some critics and libraries, the movie is dark, but it is perhaps even more richly cathartic.
What makes Sendak’s book so compelling is its grounding effect: Max has a tantrum and in a flight of fancy visits his wild side, but he is pulled back by a belief in parental love to a supper “still hot,” balancing the seesaw of fear and comfort. In expanding the story, Jonze invents just enough of Max’s home life to convey the forces behind his disobedience. The parents of 9-year-old Max have split up, and his mother is struggling to keep their household together while trying to meet her own needs. Max also has a sister, a teenager named Claire , whose desire to move on from childhood illustrated in swift, vivid brushstrokes leaves him lonely and bewildered. Not since You Can Count on Me has the potential for heartbreak in sibling love been rendered so eloquently.
We also glimpse Max at school, where, slumped over in classic bored-boy pose, he hears from his teacher that the sun, like all other things, will die. As Max’s eyes widen almost imperceptibly, we realize that he is paying attention and is horrified. Jonze keeps the moment quiet, but it is one more piece in the puzzle of existential angst that drives Max to that fateful eruption with his mother. Here, instead of being sent to his room, he flees the house and goes racing through the neighborhood, baying like a wolf. He finds a boat and sets sail, finally arriving in the land of the wild things.
This is where Jonze unleashes his considerable creativity. The beasts are recognizable from Sendak’s pages, but Jonze gives them names and distinct personalities that connect to aspects of Max’s psyche and to the people he loves. They are vast, feathered, horned, clawed, beaked and definitely wild irrational and dangerous, even when showing affection and Jonze uses their threatening bulk as well as their capacity for cruelty to remind us that Max’s taming of them is only temporary. For any child, it is near impossible to stay king of anything, even in fantasy.
James Gandolfini voices Carol, who most closely represents Max. Carol is a builder. He longs to create worlds, but as soon as their perfection falters in any way, he wants to tear them all down. “I like the way you destroy things,” he tells Max when they first meet. It’s a haunting performance, full of need and anger.
Lauren Ambrose voices KW, who, like Max’s sister, is being pulled away by new friends. She gives Max the tenderness and protection he wants from his sister, while helping him understand how oppressive his own love can be. The others include a goat-beast , who represents Max’s rage and impotence; a somewhat wise bird-beast , probably the embodiment of Max’s unseen father; the petty, devious Judith ; and her gentle but helpless mate Ira . Animation would have been a far easier choice here, but Jonze’s instinct toward verisimilitude was astute. By setting his story in real landscapes, he respects and heightens the peculiarity and tension of Max’s experience, whether he’s shivering in his wet wolf suit or running wild with the beasts in the forest.
Jonze’s biggest challenge lies in sustaining the movie’s forward momentum during Max’s time with the wild things. At a certain point, I felt I’d learned enough and was ready to go home to Keener’s anchoring presence. It’s not that Jonze is overindulgent; it’s that he’s so thoroughly devoted to exploring Max’s pain and joys, sometimes to the detriment of narrative. But I’ll let my own child make the call on whether it’s too long. I’m taking him, although I’d doubted I would, having expected the hipster’s Max. But this is a Max for everyone, for all the wild things and those who love and respect them. There was nothing to fear after all.
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