Where the Wild Things Are is particularly all about mothers and sons (and okay, fathers too, marginally), children becoming adults, the tension between being too young to be powerful and responsible, and the necessity of learning how to be both.
It's extremely faithful in look and tone to Maurice Sendak's picture-book of the same name, though not quite as elementally weird and perfect. But it takes an essentially unfilmable story and creates a worthwhile film story which charms and amazes visually, while hitting emotional spots not contemplated in the original except perhaps by implication.
Max (Max Records) is a nine-year-old kid who's a bit of a loner, a fan of stuffed animals and costumes, wild stories and attention from his family. This is painted archetypically, so that the audience can identify with him as Everykid who's ever been nine, particularly from 1963 to the present. As his world comes into focus, complications ensue.
In fact, the opening event which begins to show and ratchet up the tensions in his life was as scary to me as Bambi's mother dying. I won't spoil it, though it happens pretty much right away, but it jeopardizes Max's safety in such an immediate, claustrophobic, complete and ultimately nonchalant way typical of childhood, that it sort of took my breath away, let me know right up front that director Spike Jonze is not fooling around, there's real wildness and danger in this tale. It's not Lord of the Flies, however, despite the island setting and childish nature of Max and the beasts he visits in his imagination, though there is a constant feeling of risk and potential disaster. It's gentler than that, kind of.
Max sails to the island where the wild things are after a confrontation with his mother (Catherine Keener) over the lack of attention he's been feeling all day hanging around the house, playing in the snow and trying to spend time with his sister, who's mostly on her way out. Overwhelmed by his own need for attention and the way that desire has hurt his feelings, despite his efforts to ignore it or engage it, Max runs out of the house and into the night in his wolf costume, and suddenly finds himself in a boat at sea.
Fighting his way to the shore, he encounters a scene of destruction, with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the most dangerous and unpredictable of the beasts, razing the beasts' village because he's lonely for his friend K.W. (voice of Lauren Ambrose), who's perhaps a bit crazy and spending a fortnight talking to owls. Quickly figuring out he needs Carol on his side in his strange new circumstances, Max convinces the beasts that he is a king, and so cannot be eaten by them. Carol is so moved by his tales that he decides Max should be the new king of the beasts, as well.
The beasts are an amazing creation of Jim Henson's creature shop, as well as digital tweaking of their facial expressions as they interact with Max and each other. They are built to be realistic, in that they lumber and move under the same kind of gravity as the human characters, while being two or three times larger and stronger and able to perform acrobatic feats. It's a great tribute to say that the film is not about its effects at all, while at the same time being consumed with and all about its effects. They work to create their characters, exactly.
There are a few reservations. There are some times when the action slows and one is brought to mind of some wacky, eccentric idea of therapy that smacks a bit of the worst ideas of the sixties and seventies. The beasts, of course, while being believable characters, are also characters in Max's own imaginative story, so that they represent aspects of his own personality, or people in his real life in certain ways. They have to rehearse some situations Max is concerned about to show him what he thinks. So when the dialogue gets too pointed a few times, the audience is left to wonder if this is all scream therapy, an acid trip or a bad Ionesco play. Thankfully, while it threatens at points, it never quite slips away irretrievably in such a direction.
All in all, Where the Wild Things Are is more than worth seeing for fans of the book young and old, or even, should such people exist, non-fans unfamiliar with the classic tale. It does get slow in a few places, and one wishes for a bit more fierceness, drums and music from the beasts themselves, but that is not to say that anything is really missing emotionally.
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