“What do you do with the mad that you feel?
When you feel so mad you could bite.
When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right.”
– Fred Rogers
It’s okay for kids to have emotions. They don’t know how to control them and there will be times when they get out of hand. And while it’s a parent’s instinct to protect their child from harm, to protect them from their own emotions is a tragedy. Contrary to its unofficial tagline of “It’s not a kids movie; it’s a movie about being a kid”, “Where the Wild Things Are” is a kids’ movie and it’s a movie about being a kid. Those who say it’s too much for kids to handle can’t say, “It’s a movie about being a kid” since the film is about the emotions that kids feel every day. Kids can get scared, they can get confused, but they can also identify with those emotions when they see them. You can identify with these emotions too if you allow this film to tap into that sense memory of childhood; not through nostalgia or regression but remembering an innocence untarnished by irony, ego, cynicism, and all the baggage we take on as we mature. But healthy maturity, bittersweet as it is, can not be forced nor restrained. It must have the freedom to run wild and that means feeling a range of emotions including fear and sadness.
Rather than just take the plot of the children’s book and stuff it with filler, director Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers understood the feelings and emotions author Maurice Sendak conveyed in his writing and illustrations. Their understanding is what makes “Where the Wild Things Are” honest, courageous, heartfelt, and the best film of 2009.
Turning its focus on character instead of a plot-driven narrative, the set-up of the movie closely resembles the book: a rambunctious boy named Max gets into a fight with his mom and then he travels to a land of wild things. The key difference is that the movie is slightly darker but it’s also deeper. While the movie has Max biting his mom and then running away from home in the middle of the night, it also has Max building an igloo outside, messing up his sister’s room out of anger, and cuddling around his mom’s leg and making up little stories which she then types on her computer. This all happens before Max arrives in the land of the wild things and yes, some of his actions may make you uncomfortable, but let me ask a question: does any of this seem like something an 8-year-old boy wouldn’t do? Can you not fathom this behavior from a child?
It is this behavior which is so crucial to the film because it’s a story about being a child. The child actor must be completely honest to those emotions because if there’s a single moment where it feels like the child is acting, then that’s a moment where it feels like the actor can’t summon an emotion which should be familiar considering their age. There is no doubt in my mind that without Max Records as the lead, this film would not work. I cannot think of a single performance, from an adult or child actor, that felt completely authentic. It is a performance but one that never hits a single false note and the real emotions Records brings to the role is the foundation of this movie. Fear, joy, sadness, confusion: Records can do any emotion and it never once feels like he’s acting. His performance validates the entire movie because it forces the viewer to confront these emotions and they may make you uncomfortable but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong or shouldn’t be allowed.
With Records providing the emotional base, the rest of the movie is free to expand and the result is nothing short of breathtaking. “Where the Wild Things Are” excels on every technical level. Lance Acord’s cinematography is astounding. K.K. Barret’s production design is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The effort and craft put into the wild things turn them into a marvelous hybrid of CG and animatronics. The voice actors all fit their characters perfectly, even James Gandolfini who manages to break free of Tony Soprano and completely inhabit his character Carol. As for the music, I strongly encourage you to watch the movie before listening to the soundtrack. Before seeing the film, I only listened to part of the single, “All is Love” and it didn’t wow me so I didn’t bother listening to the rest of the soundtrack since all the original tracks are by Karen O. and The Kids. After seeing the movie, I wanted to buy the full soundtrack because I could now hear those songs in context and know how well they were used.
All of these departments fall under the direction of Spike Jonze. It would be unfair to call this his “masterpiece” simply because it’s only his third film and I can’t even imagine the imagination he’ll display in his future movies. I’m blown away by how much he’s grown as a filmmaker since his previous film, 2002’s “Adaptation”. Before Jonze began directing films, his music videos and commercials indicated his vast potential and I’m ecstatic to see him exceed such high expectations. “Where the Wild Things Are” is the culmination of his body of work thus far and it confirms Jonze as a true auteur.
Not many movies make me cry but I was blinking back tears throughout the third act of this movie. There’s a lot to analyze in this film in terms of symbolism, social commentary, Max’s psychology, the portrayal of children in movies and television, and so forth. From the opening scene with Max screaming and playfully wrestling with the family dog, it’s clear that this film needs to be experienced and to save the analysis for later. That’s not to say that I left my film criticism at the door but I’ve seen enough movies to know when I’m being disappointed and when I’m being manipulated and this movie did neither.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is not a movie for those who hide under the cover of ironic detachment. It is not for those so entrenched in their own ego that they must feel superior to everything regardless of its quality. It is not for the cynics whose myopic worldview only allows for pessimism and condescension. “Where the Wild Things Are” is for those not afraid to remember the emotions of childhood and for children who not only know fear, but anger and curiosity and sadness and joy and we should trust their capacity to experience them all.
Rating —– A+