James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
We tell ourselves childhood is a time of joy, of play, of wonder. We tell
ourselves that because, if we didn't, the pain of childhood, in our memory,
would be unendurable. We spend childhood at the mercy of large, distant adults
who define a world we don't understand, unable to speak to the feelings that
swell in us and come and go with the intensity of summer storms. Childhood can
be a wonder, but it can also be a wound. And great children's literature, great
children's film making, understands that simple fact and speaks to it. "Where the Wild Things Are" is a great film because,
for all of its wonder and magic and delight, it also knows about confusion and
reality and sadness.
Based on Maurice Sendak's 10-sentence 1963 children's book, director Spike Jonze's movie manages to build a slim, slight thing of grace into a feature-length film by burrowing into the book, not by blowing it up until it breaks. With a script by Jonze and author Dave Eggers ("A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"), "Where the Wild Things Are" does not add to or expand on the plot of Sendak's book but instead creates a series of moments -- conversations, adventures, silences -- that fit within the story Sendak created. Max (Max Records) lives with his single mom and his sister, and after acting out one night runs into the streets, finds a boat and sails away to a land full of giant creatures that not only take him in, but also make him their king.
And that land is brilliantly realized, and those creatures are stunning. It would have been easy to create the world of the Wild Things inside a computer; instead, Jonze went to Australia and shot actors in suits (from the Jim Henson Creature Shop) in the real world, and the wisdom of this decision is apparent in every frame. This is not a film defined by bits and bytes and the clicking of a thousand computer mice; it is a world of wood and wind and wave, of sunlight and stone. The technical achievement is stunning for about two minutes, and then you can forget about it and enjoy how well, and how wisely, it serves the story. "Where the Wild Things Are" feels, for lack of a better or less ironic term, handcrafted, and that makes it something quiet and true, like a campfire song played on acoustic guitar. Jonze and his army of special effects technicians have not brought Sendak's drawings to life so much as they have given life to Sendak's drawings, and all the additions to the story in the film (from the digressions of the conversations Max has with the Wild Things to a thrillingly energetic dirt bomb fight to the score, provided by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on acoustic guitar backed by a chorus of kids) reinforce the book instead of weakening it.
And the Wild Things themselves are strange, to Max, but they are also familiar. They're large and intimidating and incomprehensible, like adults, but they're moody and mercurial, like children. The head Wild Thing, Carol, is superbly voiced by James Gandolfini with real effort and real emotion, not just the lazy work of a slumming set of familiar vocal cords. It's brilliant casting; Gandolfini's Tony Soprano was charming and terrifying because he was a child in a grown-up body, and Carol's bulk and ever-changing moods play out in the same way. There are also excellent actors voicing the other Wild Things, from Lauren Ambrose's sad and separate K.W. to Forest Whitaker's soulful Ira and Catherine O'Hara's hot-tempered, cold-hearted Judith. (Judith, early on, rages at Max: "You better not be difficult to eat -- did you ever think of that? God, you're selfish.")
Some will suggest that not much happens in "Where the Wild Things Are," that it is heavy on atmosphere and short on plot. Putting aside if that's a bad thing or not -- in our overstimulated age, kids' movies often feel like endurance tests as they whiz by intent on cramming each of 88 minutes with too much activity -- I would suggest that's wrong. It's a minor miracle of the film, and Records' performance, that the journey that Max takes is ultimately to himself. His greatest discovery is not the world of the Wild Things or his new giant friends but instead of things he has inside: empathy, sympathy, love and not only forgiveness but, more importantly, the understanding that he needs to be forgiven. Children need to know they have these things inside themselves, yes. But so do adults. "Where the Wild Things Are" is contradictory: epic and small, full of complex effects and simple ideas, charmingly idealistic and impressively unsentimental, so fantastic it takes your breath away and so real it fills you with breath. Childhood can be a wonder, and childhood can be a wound, and "Where the Wild Things Are" sets a course between those extremes and creates a world and a story like the best kind of movie while creating hope and healing like the purest kind of dream.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.