Although a lot of adults say they wish they could go back to being kids, most kids would say they can’t wait to get older. The Catch-22 of the circle of life. The grass is always greener wherever you aren’t, so adults look back fondly upon their childhood, while youngsters imagine an ability to do anything you could possibly dream of, as long as you were of age. Being a child is no picnic, though. It’s difficult to adhere to a parental figure’s whim and mood. As a non-authority figure, your voice is very rarely, if ever, heard, unless crying. Even then, the objective it determine how to shut you up. At the centerpiece of Where the Wild Things Are, Max experiences similar childhood difficulties.
Max is our nine-year-old hero. He’s an imaginative child maybe not by choice, but out of necessity. His father is no longer around, his mother works and he has a teenage older sister (is there any worse a combination?). Because of these circumstances, Max is left to his own devices and must imagine a world possible for him to inhabit. He builds an “igloo” out of a mound of snow and though playfully at first, gets involved in a snowball fight with his sister and her friends. Things quickly turn for the worse when he retreats to his igloo and one of his foes collapses the structure, scaring him. His sibling offers no help, so he marches up to her room, spreads the dirty frozen water around and trashes the one thing he had bothered to give her. That ought to teach her.
As a single parent, Max’s mother must work to support their family. The two seemingly have a strong relationship between them, as Max possesses the ability to cheer her up with a dance and a story. The quiet moments when he’s able to command attention is when he feels most in his comfort zone. Unfortunately for him and those around him, lives do not revolve around a nine-year-old and when Max’s mother has another man over for dinner, he takes offense to it and makes a scene. Try as his mother might, she’s unable to coax him down from his soapbox and he runs away in protest.
He runs into his own dreamland, occupied by larger-than-life creatures deemed “Wild Things.” Some take the form of enlarged animals, others a purely imagined creation. Upon arrival, Max declares himself their king and they are open to a ruler after living a seemingly aimless existence and unstructured life which knows no borders. Amongst the Wild Things, he is the authority figure they look up to for discipline and Max may figure out being the sole voice of reason isn’t as easy as it seems.
Adapting the film from the beloved children’s book could not have been an easy feat, story-wise. The book contains little in terms of plot description, giving only the slightest framework to writers Dave Eggers & Spike Jonze. Instead, the visual adaptation of author Maurice Sendak’s gorgeous illustrations is what makes the film feel familiar to fans of the source material. The actualized Wild Things are a sight to behold, brought to life via a combination of puppetry and CGI facial moments. They are exact physical replicas of Sendak’s characters, able to send chills through the spines of any child who dared dream what Max’s imaginary friends would look like in real life. It’s a truly beautiful look.
The film was originally slated for release about a year previous, but was delayed due to a string of floating rumors. One of them was the studio thought the film was too dark to be a children’s movie and they wanted the tone lightened up. If this new version is “lighter,” they had every right to be concerned. By no means is this a children’s film. If anybody insists that it is, it’s the Leaving Las Vegas of children’s films. Aside from the first few minutes, the movie is largely unsettling and deals with depressed states and unhappiness. The two main Wild Things, Carol (male) and K.W. (female), have had some sort of unexplained past together. They appear to represent warring parents, forever wallowing in unhappiness. There is little to no redeeming value in Max’s trip to their island, aside from perhaps showing even imaginary life is no better than reality.
Another rumor from the one-year delay in release is supposedly the studio wanted Max to be recast. That’s a move that would’ve been absolutely wrong. Aside from the visually realized Wild Things, Max Records is the saving grace of the film. Max couldn’t possibly have been portrayed by anybody else, as Records is the boy in the wolf suit from the illustrated book. Though the story can be confounding in its message and outright dull at times, Records manages to be rambunctiously perfect. The character can certainly be viewed as a bit of a jerk, but Records has the ability to carry the viewer through, by his side.
It’s impossible to discount the creative effort attempted by Spike Jonze and his collaborators, as within the first five minutes I couldn’t help but think to myself, “what if all children’s films carried this wealth of ingenuity?” The film may be visually spectacular with a strong lead performance, but is almost excruciating to sit through. It left me in a daze, knowing but one thing, I didn’t love it. The rest of the area had to settle down a bit, like my mind had just endured a dirt clod fight. Where the Wild Things Are is a spectacular attempt at innovation, but falls far from the mark it set for itself. Perhaps more authority would have been a good thing.