It happened to all of us when we were children: while playing outside with the neighborhood kids, someone plays a little too rough, hurts you and you cry, partly because of the pain, but mostly because you feel kind of betrayed. No film about growing up knows this tough little life lesson better than Spike Jonze’s strange, personal and wonderful Where the Wild Things Are, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s brilliant children’s book.
A bratty young boy named Max (the remarkable, an aptly named, Max Records in a killer film debut) has annoyed his mother (Catherine Keener) one time too many and runs off into the night. He takes helm of a boat and sails to an island inhabited by giant monsters that are talkative, furry and every bit as child-like and insecure as he is.
The early scenes portraying Max’s lonely childhood and troublesome ways are startling in their realism—this isn’t a cute, disposable kiddie-movie version of youth, but an honest, even edgy portrait of how it feels, as well as looks, to experience the exhilaration and embarrassment of being a kid. Once the setting shifts to the Wild Things’ island, the initial glimpse of the creatures is jarring, as they speak in modern day vernacular and are voiced by familiar performers like James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara. But the monsters grew on me and the full-sized creature suits, created by the Jim Henson Company, are amazingly expressive and match the emotional voice work of the actors.
Some have expressed concern that this PG-rated movie may be too intense for children, but, other than a few brief moments, the film isn’t scary and the many keiki who were in the theater with me were giggling with delight throughout.
Records’ utterly natural, always believable performance reminded me of myself and my younger brother, and Keener’s work is equally moving and honest. One of the reasons I go to the movies is to see something I’ve never seen before and Jonze, the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, is always finding new ways to dazzle his audience. Visually, Wild Things evokes the richest illustrations from children’s picture books while pulling you in and reminding you how universal the joys and heartaches of childhood are.
My only complaint: the music is hit and miss. Carter Burwell’s score is reliably good but the original children’s songs that screech on the soundtrack are annoying. Thankfully, this is a forgivable flaw, not a movie-killer.
By the film’s double climax, I was genuinely choked up and walked away feeling elated. While I could say I used to be like the kid on screen, the truth is the big kid inside of me can still relate to everything Max went through. Parts of this movie are right out of my life…and likely yours, too.