Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

21 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How did I feel about “Where the Wild Things Are” immediately after I saw it? I imagine it was the same reaction that open-minded audiences had when they saw it in on the big screen—stunned silence, followed by a stating “Huh,” and then walking out trying to think about what they just saw. That happened to me as well. This is one of those late-reaction movies, where you have absorbed everything that the movie has thrown at you, and once it’s over, you slowly but surely realize how much of an impact it left with you.

What can I really say about “Where the Wild Things Are?” It’s adapted from a short children’s book and directed by Spike Jonze of “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” It has a fairly simple family-movie idea to start with—a little boy goes to a mystical island to have fun with gigantic, playful beasts. But it goes way beyond the silliness of that idea, and manages to give a pleasurable mix of concepts, imagination, director’s vision, and complexity that goes deeper into the original source material. It is also, in my opinion, just one of those absolutely perfect movies. Everything about it works, from beginning to end. I can’t seem to find a single thing wrong with it.

The fact that it’s a family-oriented picture makes it even better because there’s something here for everybody. Although, some parents may complain it may be a little “too dark” for their kids to see, but the movie earns its dark moments by playing it straight. It’s not dark; it’s deep, and not in a ridiculous way either. And the kids are probably going to see a bit of themselves reflected in this film—the emotions that the young protagonist goes through are relatable to, I believe, every kid.

A little boy named Max (Max Records) is a wild little boy. Sometimes, he can be sweet and loving, while other times, he’s moody, lonely, reckless, and even violent in some cases (he tries to bite his mother at one point). One day, he feels lonely and left out when a snowball fight with his older sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and her friends ends gloomily, and his mother (Catherine Keener) ignores him because she has a date (Mark Ruffalo). Angry, Max escapes into his deep imagination and appears on an island where the natives are gigantic, furry creatures known as the “Wild Things.” There are about seven of them, each of which represent a part of Max’s being. They make Max their king, and they all have fun together—running, playing games, being wild. But soon, Max learns that these Wild Things do actually have conflicts the same as he does back home. There are issues with a certain group (or “clique,” if you will), games can get a little too rough, and feelings that can be hurt as easily as Max’s was. These are all issues that Max has to deal with back home, and he learns that things aren’t as different here as they were there.

“Where the Wild Things Are” has a low-key approach—it’s more soft and bitter in its key sequences while using pure emotion to tell most elements of the story. This could have been handled with more of a blockbuster feel with a lot of machinery and cuteness to try and appeal to a mainstream audience (see the deplorable Dr. Seuss film adaptations, for example). It’s amazing how director Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers somehow managed to take a simple story and create a soft, deep family movie that is not like many others in recent memory.

The idea of Max running off to the fantasy island of Wild Ones is Max’s way of escaping into his own imagination, which is why these beasts resemble parts of Max’s psyche. Max develops a strong bond with a few of them, particularly Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) who represents Max’s soul—someone who seeks friendship and love while feeling destructive when internally pushed. There’s also a kindly Wild One named KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), who represents Max’s unconditional love for his family.

This couldn’t have been as clear (or as effective) without the fifteen-minute-long prologue that shows Max’s recklessness, imagination, the way he sees the world around him, and of course his relationships with his mother and his sister. Everything comes back around for Max on this island. Things start to fall apart on the island, as Max’s fantasy world starts to turn against him. It’s then that he learns certain things about his own life, including how hard it is to negotiate with family and friends. When Carol is suddenly destructive, and Max has to reason with him, it’s really Max’s way of understanding himself more.

As for those Wild Things themselves, they’re not only imaginative in their creature designs (live-action but not cartoony, looking like they stepped right off the pages of the original book); but they have distinct emotions and personalities. The effects team gets the look of each of these creatures exactly right, and the voice actors (which also include Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, and Forest Whitaker) do successful jobs of helping make them three-dimensional.

Every kid likes to pretend they’re somewhere else when they’re all alone with no friends or family members to interact with. While doing so, they make up people or creatures or all sorts of characters to interact with, and the kid can further figure out certain things this way. That is really what this fantasy land is all about with “Where the Wild Things Are”—it’s Max’s way of figuring out what’s happening around him in reality. The film is more fascinating in this sense. “Where the Wild Things Are” is truly an excellent film. It’s insightful, indefinable, and enchanting, to say the absolute least.

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