Precious. Intimate. Immediate. Privileged. These are the ways we can describe the various moments that occur in Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. These terms, which any frosh film student should recognize, are generally associated with documentary cinema. They have become applicable here, however, because Mr. Jonze rightly decided to let the pomp and circumstance that comes with any major studio children’s film fall away, focusing this film on the rambunctious perspective of a child in flux.
Hyperactive and creative Max is a boy with seemingly no friends but his mother. Always looking for an adventure to go on, he is stuck in a life of suburban boredom and Oedipal rage (aren’t we all?). There are a bevy of Freudian signifiers which lead to Max’s escape from his home on a journey to the ends of the earth. There he meets the folks we lovingly call “the wild things” (Buber, anyone?) who take him in as their king. At home with the beasts, our young ruffian slowly finds that even life in his own private utopia can get complicated.
And this is where the film gets clunky. Once established as monarch, his job is simply to make everyone happy again. If that sounds a bit esoteric, you’re right on target. It would be much simpler if Max had to rescue a princess or uncover lost treasure, but instead he must achieve and retain happiness. While the overall lesson, that sustainable joy is hard-won so appreciate what you have, is of serious value, the idea of watching it for 90 minutes isn’t quite so fun.<
That’s not to say there aren’t real joys to be had in this film. Mr. Jonze’s work always seems influenced by what a pain in the ass it actually is to make a movie. While the sets and characters are larger than life our perspective is always peripheral. Where a Bryan Singer or Chris Weitz might build up the sheer grandiosity of this wild world, Mr. Jonze never strays from the documentary approach. Stark colors, an always moving camera, and a telephoto viewpoint make the magical aspects of the film seem even more real. Thankfully, the furry friend’s are (mostly) grounded in reality. Unlike so many Jar-Jar Binks’, these beasts are tangible yet creative in execution.
Children today have a fairly tough go at the movie theater. They are stricken mostly to animated fare or whatever Robert Rodriguez has cooked up for his family, which may as well be a cartoon. The landscape is seemingly bereft of weightier fare like The Neverending Story,_ The Dark Crystal, or _Time Bandits. Where the Wild Things Are takes a page from that book, offering up a relatable coming of age amid more dangerous visuals. There’s nothing wrong with exposing kids to a little of what the Motion Picture Association of America terms “mild peril”. If only Max’s lesson were a little more thought out, this may be the talebearer of a new generation of perilous filmmaking. One can hope.