by Tony Dayoub
The growing realization that childhood is finite fuels the sad Where the Wild Things Are. This means that I'm not ready for even my oldest son to see this beautifully rendered adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic book. But Spike Jonze's film strikes me as less of an evocation of Sendak's tale than it does as a personal story for the often elusive director. It's as if one could see his therapist suggesting he draw on his own childhood issues to inform his next film, and this is what was spit out. That's not to say I wouldn't recommend the film. Actually, I believe it is a movie with rewards both large and small. But be forewarned. Those seeking the joyous celebration of innocence and thoughtless playful abandon will find the film lacking in this regard.
Sendak's book illustrates the child Max's ability to escape into the refuge of his imagination after his mother sends him to his room without supper for acting out. In his imaginings, Max creates a world where he rules above all the other "Wild Things." But he eventually realizes that his artificial world without responsibility lacks the security offered by his mother in the real world. He returns to his room to find his mom, and a hot plate of food, waiting for him.
Though faithful to the book, Jonze's version is a bit darker, weaving in realistic psychological motivations such as: the absence of Max's father; Max's alienation from a sister who is entering adulthood; and fear over the diminishing time his single mother has to share with him. Sendak's anonymous "Wild Things" are representative of the ramblings of play, and its lack of consequences, universally found in the child's mind. Jonze's creatures are much more specific, each one with a name, and tied to a precise facet of Max's complicated emotions over the instant implosion of his childhood in the wake of a never-actually-articulated divorce. There is the de facto leader of the beasts, the hulking bully Carol (James Gandolfini), whose feelings most resemble those of Max; K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), whose undisclosed disconnect from Carol implies an association with the slowly growing divide between Max and his sister; and a few more creatures, including Judith (Catherine O'Hara), the self-proclaimed downer that stands in for Max's frustrated but loving mother (Catherine Keener).
The cumulative effect of seeing Max's inner turmoil splayed across the screen distances us from the Sendak fable to some degree. And in at least one significant way, that is not a bad thing. For if movie adaptations generally succeed when an auteur makes the story his own—like The Godfather movies were elevated beyond their gangster roots by embracing director Coppola's biographical look at his own famiglia—then Jonze (Being John Malkovich) accomplishes this by allowing us a glimpse into his own psyche. The detached sensibility that usually permeates Jonze's films is absent in this one. In films like Adaptation (2001), part of Jonze's absurd take on the story is derived from the omniscient perspective that allows one to see events from odd and sometimes impossible angles. Here he fully immerses the viewer in Max's world: shooting from the low angles one could imagine as a child's perspective; grounding every character in Max's sense of self, all of them outgrowths of his ego; and denying the adult characters any names, Max's own punishment on those he believes have betrayed him.
Ultimately, Where the Wild Things Are's introspection suggests that Jonze's movie wears its title ironically rather than truthfully. These "Things" are not "Wild." They are devastated—by the impending apocalypse of their childhood. As they, and Max, learn being an adult is accepting that actions have their consequences, one sees Jonze beginning to accept the same level of maturity in his own films. Jonze finally lets us peek into his soul onscreen, personified in the young Max. And like most of us, he longs for the days when everything was simpler.