I don’t really like kids. I don’t like the person I was when I was a kid. I can imagine the secret waves of detest that people must have felt for me as a child, with my demands and my loudness and my cries for respect and dignity. Now, as an adult, I wish ever so much that I didn’t have to go through being the person I was to end up here, as the person I am. But I realize that the journey does indeed make the man or woman, and that there are certain pieces of childhood that are important to remember through the rest of our lives. Spike Jonze has created a potent parable of the foibles and joys of youth in his new film Where the Wild Things Are. This was a wonderful film I just saw and will most definitely be watching it again. It’s important to remember, though, that this is a movie about children, not for children. As an example, in the theater I saw this in, the ratio of adults to children was about 2:1. About 35 minutes in, two families walked out, one of the kids actually saying to his mother, “I don’t wanna watch this anymore. I just wanna go home.” And this is another reason why I don’t like children.
If you read the intensely long children’s novel Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, forget about that grueling experience and try to imagine almost a completely different concept. Max is an imaginative 8 year-old boy with a lot of energy and a lot of problems relating to people. His big sister is aloof now that she’s started hanging out with older kids, her mother is a single working parent with a lot on her plate, and he really doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends. So after a particular tantrum targeted at his sister’s room and making a spectacle of himself during a dinner his mom invited a friend over for, Max gets in a lot of trouble. But instead of taking it like your average child and going to his room, Max bites his mom and runs off towards the woods. In the woods, Max wanders for a while to discover a tiny sailboat, which he boards out of curiosity, and it takes him far, far away, beyond his wildest dreams. After days of rough seas and loneliness, he stumbles across a large island in the middle of the unforgiving sea one night. He tracks a group of fires he sees glowing in the distance and finds, to his surprise, a group of monsters!
Well, they’re kind of monsters. They have human names and human emotions and they talk exactly like humans, except they’re just huge and look like monsters. They’re all arguing when he finds them, and when he first comes to them, in their frustration, they contemplate eating him. But Max cleverly lies to them and tells them that he has powers and could kill them if he so chose because he was a great king where he came from. They all believe this lie, and one of the monsters in particular, named Carol, fancies the idea of a leader to unite them all and keep them away from sadness and pain, so he elects Maz to be their king. They all agree, and Max is crowned their ruler. At first, Max thinks this is great, and loves the monsters’ ideas of hanging out together and having fun all the time. But he soon realizes that he can’t run from his troubles, even on an island full of monsters.
The movie succeeds based on the heavy investments of everyone involved. Everyone here was interested in Jonze’s vision enough to focus and create a snapshot of beauty, savagery, and the heart of a child. Jonze makes this film not a masterpiece in the realm of his peculiar sensibilities, but rather an invigoratingly dense and unmitigated meditation that transcends ownership and becomes a state of mind that, for a change, we can all inhabit. His technical prowess, as usual, knows few limits; the film is undeniably beautiful. The monsters seems alive, with the organic mix of computer animation, suitmation (i.e. Godzilla) and animatronics, and not only that but they seem to have real emotions inside of them that catch our imaginations like claws tightening around lighting bugs. And some of the shots across the beautiful wild island are so amazing that one merely has to stop and examine them to fully appreciate them.
Max Records carries most of the film on his tiny, 12 year-old shoulders. He’s put through an emotional wringer, having to inhabit the body, heart, and soul of a wild young boy like Max. The whole story revolves around him, and it would be easy for him to let the cool monsters and the wondrous imagery to carry most of the burden, but he makes it all his own and really shows his potential for someone so young. I can’t wait to follow this young man and see the interesting choices he’ll make as an actor farther down the road. But the voice actors are no slouches either. James Gandolfini electrifies as Carol, the rambunctious monster that seems to represent Max’s wild, uncontrollable side. He’s wonderful; the amount he puts into what most people have pegged to be a children’s film is nothing less than spectacular. He might also be the reason that kids dislike the film, however, as some of the heavier scenes dealing with this monster could be a little frightening for children with no experience in seeing strong emotions up on the screen. Catherine O’Hara is Judith, a monster who represents Max’s downer side, and she delivers her usual awesome performance. I love how beautiful her voice is sometimes but how gravelly and froggy it can get when she goes deep. And Lauren Ambrose plays KW, a monster who could represent both his mother and his sister. She is sweet and personable, and this movie made me remember how much I loved her in the late 90s and early 00s. She has a one-of-a-kind personality in her voice that makes me just want to stop and listen to whatever she has to say, however banal or pedestrian.
And a note on the music: Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs really flexes her chops as she and Carter Burwell composed the soundtrack to this fine film. With a children’s choir and some indie rock sentiments, the two delight with a collection of songs that pushes us down the river and into the same dream-like atmosphere Max finds himself. The songs are simple and have a very strong emotion in each of them, whether it’s anger, fear, intense joy, or merely comfort. Every moment is important sonically, and you actually hang on the notes a little bit. My favorite part; when Karen O does the Native American pow-wow thing with her voice (wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa!).
I thought long and hard about this movie, and I came to the conclusion that there’s nothing I don’t like about it. Every single moment of Where the Wild Things Are is gorgeous, heartfelt, and engrossing. I feel like it was made for people with an eye for cinema, an eye for detail, and if you’re a patient, perceptive individual, you’ll find a lot to love about this major studio art-house film Spike Jonze tricked the plebs at Warner Bros. into letting him make. If you have children, leave them at home for this one; it might sound harsh, but they probably can’t handle this movie yet. You, however, might get in touch with your inner child here, or at least your inner wild thing. I give Where the Wild Things Are 10 wild islands out of 10. My highest recommendation!
Tomorrow I start spreading on the scary from Monday ALL the way to Halloween when I watch Black Sunday! Until then!