Spike Jonze, the visionary director behind BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION, returns to the big screen with an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's iconic children's book. The book is slight, dark but also joyful: a little boy called Max throws a tantrum, is sent to his room, and disappears into an imaginary world of wild things. The wild rumpus if fun, but he grows lonely and returns home in time for his supper, which is still hot! BBC Radio 4 produced a marvellous programme on the book and its iconic status, interviewing Sendak. He said he thought the book was radical because Max wasn't a WASP but a little Jewish kid, and because Max wasn't a classic innocent child but a realistic rage-filled, energy-filled little boy. And after all, he had it both ways - King in his imaginary world, but also welcomed back into his home.
Spike Jonze and writer David Eggers have taken the slender meat in the book and spun it out into a beautifully rendered, overwhelmingly dark and pyschologically truthful film about the fears and resentments of childhood. In truth, there isn't much joy left in it, and I'm not sure what kids will make of it. But for adults, the film is a deeply emotionally affecting depiction of what it's like to be a child, and indeed, the pressures on parents in a modern world of working parents and divorce.
The first hour of the film gives us the reality of little Max (Max Records), a nine year old kid growing up in the snowy American burbs. His elder sister is too busy being a teen to hang with him, his working mum (Catherine Keener) tries her best to give him attention but has her own stress to deal with. He loves mischief - instigating a snowball fight with his sister's friends - but gets scared when the fight gets out of control and they smash his igloo. The film is full of visual references to kids seeking small dark places to hide and feel safe in, but that safety being intruded upon. It's also full of play fights that have real emotional consequences. In these early scenes, I love the efficiency with which Jonze and Eggers essay Max's emotional life. The fight that triggers his running away comes out of nowhere. I also love the freedom of the camera, capturing with handheld the rumpus, but also shooting from Max's POV and height. There's a lovely scene where Max is sitting under his mum's desk tugging at her tights - a wonderfully intimate moment but also hinting at his need to express himself and incapability of doing so with words.
By the second half hour, Max has run away from his house having thrown a tantrum and bitten his mother on the shoulder - a highly charged scene. He takes a boat and through scary waves, lands in the land of the wild things. There he meets a loose collective of monsters and becomes their king, starting play-fights that soon sour. All of these monsters are expressions of Max's own insecurities and fears - the fear of not fitting in, of being abandoned for cooler friends, of not being understood, of not being loved, of sadness. The fear that doing a robot dance won't make his mum happy and won't make the monsters happy either.
I love this section for its wonderful visual style. When Carol (James Gandolfini) takes Max to see his model world, it really is magical. There's a kind of magic to the simple mastery of making and doing rather than CGI wizardry. That translates to the monsters themselves. They are giant muppets that have been ever so lightly CGI animated to show the facial expressions of the actors voicing them. It's a really wonderful result - they look real, they have weight, but they also look, well, muppety enough to have come from a kids imagination. I also love the wry humour. Classic example: Max and Carol are walking through a desert and an absolutely enormous monster appears on the horizon. Carol dismisses it as a harmless pup: "don't feed it or he'll follow you around." But there's no denying that this section is also pretty much a constant downer. The monsters talk like a bunch of depressed characters from a Woody Allen film, filled with neuroses about failed relationships and low self-esteem. They speak in phrases that kids must hear and not quite understand. They have an abiding sadness that poor Max can't shift because, after all, he's not a real king.
In the final section, emotions come to a head. Some of the monsters realise that Max favours KW and Carol - that's he not an equal opps king. And then they realise that he's not really a king at all. And then, most crucially, as Max tries to convince KW about the need for family and why she should return "home" to Carol, he also realises that he too needs to go home. What is learned? Maybe not much. Max always loved his mum, and still has trouble expressing himself. The rage and the fear are still there.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a brave, bold and beautifully imagined movie that takes us into the psyche of a kid who has trouble expressing himself. Is it a kids film? Not sure. But it is certainly a superb film about being a kid, and about being a parent. It is uncompromising, challenging, dark, scary and makes you cry. Spike Jonze remains one of the most fascinating directors working today.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was released in October in the USA, Canada and Italy. It was released in November in the Ukraine, Malaysia, the Czech Republic and Romania. It is currently on release in Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Denmark, Lithuania, Norway, Turkey, the UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Spain. It opens on December 30th in Belgium. It opens in January in Brazil, Singapore, Finland, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Japan, Argentina, Greece, Portugal, Venezuela and Sweden. It opens on February 4th in Russia.