Nine year-old Max (Max Records, "The Brothers Bloom") is a cyclone of energy who exasperates his Mom (Catherine Keener, "Into the Wild," "The Soloist"). Even when he is sent to his room, he cannot keep still, and so he embarks on a voyage that takes him to "Where the Wild Things Are."
How to adapt the beloved Maurice Sendak children's book, comprised of only 10 sentences, into a feature length film? Cowriter/director Spike Jonze ("Adaption") and Dave Eggers ("Away We Go") have done it in ways that are satisfying on many levels. After establishing Max as a loner who lives within his own wild imagination and acts out when he is set aside by older sister Claire for her teenage friends or his mother for her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), Jonze and Eggers create a parallel universe where the wild things are. Max meets his counterpart in Carol (voice of James Gandolfini, HBO's "The Sopranos) and learns how being out of control impacts others. In this amazing, if not perfect adaptation, the filmmakers subtly create an alternate reality for Max where he essentially faces himself and must decide to leave the base savagery of childhood behind in order to fit into society and they have done it in an incredibly imaginative and moving way. But first, he needs to see his mom.
We first meet Max as he's building a snow fort. When his sister leaves the house with a bunch of kids Max jumps on the opportunity to wage a snowball fight, but it is short lived and one of Claire's friends caves in his fort tunnel, then Claire drives off without so much as a wave. Enraged, Max smashes a gift he made for her and dumps piles of snow off his snowsuit onto her rug. Mom is understanding - to a point - but later she requests a story which Max tells as he stretches out the toe of her nylon stocking, a touching and intimate gesture. Later, though, when mom is entertaining a boyfriend and won't come up to inspect Max's bedroom fort, he acts out and when mom insists that he is out of control, he runs away and sets sail across a vast sea, landing on a rocky shore. When he makes his way inland, he observes some very large and unusual looking creatures, one of whom is smashing round huts made of branches. Max makes a decision and rushes in, joining the melee. At first the monsters are taken aback, but Carol compliments Max on his technique. When the issue of eating him comes up, Max invents a colorful back story for himself that results in him being declared King. As King, Max declares that a fort must be built, where anyone they do not agree should be let inside will have his head explode. But before too long, Max begins to see that this little society has many problems. Carol is deeply troubled by the fact that KW (voice of Lauren Ambrose, HBO's "Six Feet Under") has gone away to be with her new friends Bob and Terry. Judith (voice of Catherine O'Hara, "Away We Go"), a self-admitted 'downer' accuses Max of favoritism. The goat-headed Alexander (voice of Paul Dano, "There Will Be Blood"), the runt at only eight feet high, thinks no one ever listens to him and the Bull (voice of Michael Berry Jr., "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl") is a sad creature who hangs back from the others.
Jonze revels in the animalistic savagery that can consume a 9 year-old boy. In his scruffy wolf costume, Max bites his mom before taking off. When Carol checks him out by smell, Max reciprocates and later delights Carol by instigating a 'pile-on' when the wild things go to sleep. A dirt clod battle apes the earlier snowball fight, but it isn't Max who's hurt this time - it's Alexander - and Max only realizes the error of his ways when he spies a deep gash underneath Al's fur. He also views the beauty of destruction in a different light when it is his inspiration that comes under fire. Jonze and Eggers also parallel the Oedipal dimension by making KW a maternal figure (she literally 'rebirths' Max after hiding him from Carol in her stomach) who has caused Carol to act out by paying attention to Bob and Terry (two screeching owls whom everyone but Carol and Max seem to understand).
Max Records is a real find in the central role, a natural and sympathetic creature, but the real achievement is the monster vocal cast. Sometimes celebrity voices can be distracting, and while Gandolfini and O'Hara initially are unmistakably themselves, they bring such character nuance to their respective beasts that one forgets about the actors. Everyone's good, with Ambrose, the youngest of the vocal cast, giving KW some sad maternal weight and Dano bringing a melancholy longing to Al. Forest Whitaker ("Vantage Point") makes Judith's mate Ira the most easy-going of the bunch, proud of the praise Max heaps upon him for his hole-making ability and Chris Cooper ("Breach") is matter-of-fact as the birdlike Doug, Carol's right-hand 'man.' Keener is, as usual, perfect as the harried yet loving mom.
Technically, the film is a wonderful achievement as well. The giant puppets, which look just like the book illustrations, are amazingly agile (they are operated from within by people, although the animatronics which were going to be used initially were too heavy and stripped from the heads - expressions were animated later), running, jumping and flying through the air. Jonze uses a color scheme which is more primordial than primary, not your typical children's palette, but befitting this story with its primal urges. His Australian 'wild' location is also raw and rugged while Max's house and neighborhood reflects a blue collar middle America rather than the perfect tree-lined streets of pristine colonials of most Hollywood films (there does, however, seem to be an awful lot in bloom for the amount of snow on the ground). Music is extraordinary, from the talented Carter Burwell ("A Serious Man") and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O, urgent and tribal with choruses of children's voices and hints of 80's songs (I detected similarities to both Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and General Public's "Tenderness").
"Where the Wild Things Are" is as unique a film as you will see this year. It's unexpectedly moving, beautiful and profound.
Robin did not see this film.
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