Screenplay: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers
Book: Maurice Sendak
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Max Records, Wild Things, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, Pepita Emmerichs
Voices: James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Michael Berry Jr.
Studio: Warner Bros.
Growing up, Maurice Sendak’s children’s book “Where The Wild Things Are” took a very special place in my big heart (and when I grew up, my right arm). The idea of a rebellious boy entering a foreign land on a sailboat and reigning as king over a handful of fierce monsters was beautiful. But a little panic ran through my mind when I found out the book was to be adapted into a feature length film. The only thought that played like a broken record was, “how the hell are they going to adapt a book with less than 200 words into a 90 minute feature?” My mind came to a Moby Dick-sized ease when the guy who made a heartbreaking movie about a flower was announced to direct the film. We know him as Spike Jonze, and his WTWTA adaption was simply wonderful.
Jonze stayed faithful to Maurice, creating a little spin on things to give length to the story. In our opening scene, (which also appears in the book) we see Max chasing around the family dog - fork in hand - giving the audience the heads up that Max is a bit, um, troubled. Max is a dreamer, as he builds tunnels in big piles of snow and plays (alone) inside them. His dreams come to a crumbling halt when he picks a snowball fight with his big sister’s (Pepita Emmerichs) friends and they end up destroying his freshly-built igloo. Max’s only friend is his mother, played by the uber-cool Catherine Keener. She asks Max to tell her stories, then types them word for word - with a smile - exactly how he recites them.
Things end up going sour for Max and Mom’s friendship when he discovers she has another man in her life, “Boyfriend,” in a cameo by Mark Ruffalo. Like in the book, Max has a blowout with his mom, but instead of being sent to his room without dinner and creating a forest that he sailboats to in his head, Max runs away and borrows a tiny boat from a dock, then sets out on a terrifying and dangerous journey to a land of Wild Things. When he arrives, he meets giant and surprisingly friendly talking monsters: Carol, Alexander, Judith, Ira, The Bull, Douglas, and KW (voiced by James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, and Lauren Ambrose, respectively).
Even the Wild Things get the blues, as things aren’t going well for any of his newfound friends. Our main monster, Carol, isn’t at all pleased that his group isn’t as tightly knit as they once were (think back to Max and Mom’s recent debacle), and Alexander is tired of being the center of jokes. It’s very obvious that the problems the monsters are dealing with are the same feelings Max is suffering in his head. They threaten to eat Max, so Max tells a little complex lie, resulting in the Wild Things crowning him King, trusting he’ll end their loneliness and create a great place of happiness.
One of the greatest strengths of the movie - which is the most important one - is that of Max, played by Max Records. Records not only fits perfectly in the dirty wolf costume, but also sucks us in with his emotions. When Records’ Max is mad, I wanna stomp my feet with him, when he’s laughing, I found myself chuckling back, and when he’s crying, well, let’s just say I needed a tissue.
Of all of Records’ scenes, the one that stands out the most (for me, at least) is when Max suggests a war between the Wild Things. Max is fearless against the opposing team - the bad guys, a King’s never a bad guy! - even with his tiny clumps of dirt compared to their large mounds of muddy death. It was nice to watch a scene that brought me back to my 9 year old self, when play fights seemed so real, and I’d lose a friend if he claimed to have shot me first.
The most important part of the film was how the Wild Things looked. In a time when you can CGI anything, Spike chose to use real people in costumes, which were created by The Jim Henson Company (the same people behind the Muppets characters). A little CGI is thrown in, however, to give the Wild Things more believable facial expressions, which is 100% okay by me. The mix ran very smoothly.
The thought of the film failing did linger in the back of my mind, even with Spike’s wonderful talents controlling WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Stretching this story into a 90 minute film could have turned into a complete disaster, but WTWTA never deserted my interest. About an hour into the film, things do slow down a bit - which could lose the attention of children - and a lot of people that are expecting more than what Maurice’s book had to offer may leave disappointed. After all, this is just a simple story about a child who just wants to play.