Film review – Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) and Max (Max Records)

Maurice Sendak’s beloved and acclaimed 1963 children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, about a world created by a child’s anger-fuelled imagination, has been lovingly adapted into this live action feature film. The hero of the story is Max (Max Records), a sensitive 9-year-old boy who lives with his divorced mother and older sister. Max is pretty much left to his own devices so entertains himself with his energetic and very active imagination. After a big fight with his mother, Max runs away and sails to an unknown world populated by a group of big furry monsters who after deciding not to eat him, instead declare him to be their king.

Where the Wild Things Are is initially incredibly impressive and the scenes depicting the bond between Max and his stressed yet loving mother, played by Catherine Keener, are very touching. We are quickly endeared towards Max who may be impulsive and immature, as 9-year-olds tend to be, but also lonely and friendless. When Max first arrives at the island and encounters the creatures it is a glorious moment largely because the creatures look amazing. By using a combination of puppetry, courtesy of the legendary Jim Henson Company, and computer animation the creatures are realistically brought to life. You don’t ever question the boundary between special effects and live action because everything about the creatures looks so natural. The seamless inclusion of the creatures into the film is then made even stronger by the fact that they are all fully realised characters.

The prevailing concept of Where the Wild Things Are is that the creatures possess the rationale and logic of a child. Like Max they are driven by emotions and desires and in particular Max finds a kindred spirit in Carol, a creature who is prone to destructive temper tantrums when made jealous or angry. Distinctively voiced by James Gandolfini, complete with trademark heavy breathing, Carol is not too far removed from Gandolfini’s character Tony Soprano (from the television series The Sopranos), who was by-and-large also driven by the id of a child. At first the community of creatures is one of fun recklessness, enthusiasm, innocence and friendship. However, there is a darker side to the nature of children that is also present and the tone of the film changes when the creatures start to become wilful, sulky and sometimes even cruel.

The unfortunate disappointment with Where the Wild Things Are is that outside of representing the subconscious fantasies and anxieties of a child, it doesn’t have much propelling the narrative forward. Once Max becomes established in the creatures’ world there is little narrative drive and the film stalls. Writer/director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and co-writer Dave Eggers (Away We Go) have probably done the best adaptation that was possible and despite the inherent problem that there is not enough material to fully sustain an entire film, Where the Wild Things Are is nevertheless an impressive film about childhood.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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