A film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s cherished picture-book was always going to be a challenge. The original material is beautiful but minimal, and to watch the film expecting an experience akin to that of reading (or being read) the book is unrealistic. To truly enjoy Spike Jonze’s adaptation, the viewer must embrace the changes made and approach it as less of a children’s story, and more as a story both for and about children.
Jonze’s treatment of Max’s world is fantasy turned psychological realism, with original scenes such as the bedroom turning into a jungle, and the sea monster, being omitted in place of quiet conversations, domestic in tone. Making a conscious turn away from escapism toward a more down to earth study of childhood, the film becomes painfully relevant to anyone who has experienced awkwardness or confusion in their young lives. Max Records plays Max with an honestly that feels entirely natural. I cannot remember the last time that I believed a performance from a child actor so whole-heartedly. All emotions and feelings are on display, and in their most raw form: irrational anger, melancholy and sadness, wild excitement, fear and apprehension, loneliness, satisfaction, embarrassment, regret. The entire sphere of childhood is encapsulated. The sweet thrill of playing with friends is succeeded by the mortification of hurting someone and not meaning to, and the destruction that comes with senseless rage is met with a poignant guilt.
The Wild Things themselves are beautiful to look at. The costume design and CGI work wonderfully well together, and the re-animation of human features on to the faces of the creatures never feels obvious or jarring. Voice acted by some amazing talent, Carol, KW, Judith, Ira, Alexander, Douglas, and The Bull, all come to life with a startling authenticity. Their mundane names suit their familial dynamic, with each one inhabiting certain characteristics or anxieties that reflect Max’s own troubles at home. Carol is unbridled fury, seeking the destruction of that which he loves in reaction to the inscrutableness of the woman in his life (KW). KW in turn is Max’s mother and sister, a comforting female presence whose depression is perplexing to a young boy who has not experienced adult life. Judith is the voice of authority where it is not wanted, a grounding presence, reflecting the scolding that Max receives from his mother. Ira is creativity, Alexander insecurity, and Douglas is representative of a more ‘adult’ reason and logic. The scene towards the end of the film where Douglas finally confronts Carol, admitting that he’s known all along that Max isn’t King but just “went along with it anyway”, is an example of this ‘adult reason’ growing in strength within Max. I could go on for pages about the symbolism behind the Wild Things; every piece of dialogue and characterisation is rich in meaning, and yet the meaning never feels forced.
Visually stunning, the forest and desert locations bleed into each other in a dream-like manner; areas dense with greenery and trees lead out into barren yellow rock, darkness and snow follows hot summer sun. This is a world made out of extremes and opposites. Sometimes they complement each other, and other times they lead to disaster. And yet this is all part of the learning experience for Max. He must survive the ups and downs, the extremes of emotion, in order to return home wiser and more settled.
I can understand the negative criticism of the film. Most of it stems from the film’s realism in comparison to the book. If the story was a part of your childhood, I urge you to approach the film with an open mind. It is not trying to be the book; it’s taking an incredibly inspiring base material, and creating out of it something equally beautiful, but perhaps for different reasons. It is possible to love both. An effecting and emotional portrayal of youth, Where the Wild Things Are is a quiet but powerful tale that offers something new with every watch.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★ 1/2