It’s hard not to have heard about this movie. Even if you aren’t familiar with Spike Jonze’s work, or have never heard of someone named Karen O, chances are you’ve either read this book as a child or, as an adult to your child. That Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s picture book, at roughly ten lines in as many pages, could even be adapted into a full length live-action film is plenty to whet my curiosity.
The film follows Max, an imaginative and troubled young boy whose mother (Keener) nourishes his imagination by asking him to tell her stories at night. But when she brings home a date, Max, dressed in a dingy beast costume, grows defiant and lashes out. After running away in the night, Max comes to a shore with a sail boat and sails away to where the wild things be.
Up until Max reaches the island of the wild things, the film’s tone is muted and minimal, somber even, punctuated by tinkling bells and bittersweet guitar strings. Once on the island, Jonze livens things up a little with glorious scenes of Max and the Things acting wild in wild ways. They smash up thicket houses, punch holes through trees and have dirt clod wars. By embellishing the truth (mostly with lies), Max convinces the Wild Things that he is a king, and therefore, their king.
The Wild Things themselves are a treat. The combination of intricate costumes and subtle CGI effects make them both believable and fascinating as characters. And the understated voice work of the actors, especially Gandolfini, adds a natural and human quality to the Wild Things that belies their somewhat grotesque exteriors.
As I take it, the creatures’ individual personalities represent the multiple aspects of Max’s own psyche (the film could be interpreted otherwise), but with Max being such a depressed little brat most of the time, it sometimes feels like Where The Brooding Things Are. Not that this is intrinsically bad, or wrong, but in a children’s movie, especially one filled with such wonder and charm, I’d expect an emphasis on fun rather than deep themes of sadness, death and teeth falling out. The narrative falters when it delves into philosophical musings and existential despair, smothering the audience in a fog of pretension, aided in no small part by the misplaced indie-cute pixie songs of the normally ferocious Karen O.
Though hardly the masterpiece its source material is, Where The Wild Things Are, in true Spike Jonze fashion, is something else. Sometimes inspired, sometimes awkward, Jonze’s uneven vision is nothing if not curious.