movie film review | chris tookey

Where The Wild Things Are

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  Where The Wild Things Are Review
Tookey's Rating
6 /10
Average Rating
6.09 /10
Catherine Keener, Max Records , Mark Ruffalo
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Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers, based on Maurice Sendak’s book

Released: 2009
Origin: US
Length: 101

Weird but sometimes wonderful.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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One of the world’s best-loved children’s books – a colourful, pictorial tribute to childish fantasy, and at 338 words a masterpiece of narrative economy - has been turned into a long, surprisingly dark feature film that’s about children, rather than for them.

Spike Jonze interprets Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book as a Freudian parable about a young boy confronting his own violent Id and learning to become a civilised, socialised adult. It should go down a storm with child psychiatrists.

I can see why Jonze wanted to make it. The creator of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation obviously has huge sympathy for the wild fertility of a nine year-old boy’s imagination. This movie captures, better than any other I’ve seen, the charm as well as the savagery of a child’s life lived without inhibitions.

Even so, small children who loved the book may find the film more disturbing than entertaining.

It gets off to a brilliant start. The opening scenes establish a nine year-old boy who’s prone to tantrums when others refuse to acknowledge that he is the centre of the universe. Jonze and his co-writer Dave Eggers give him a few 21st century anxieties via a gleeful teacher explaining to his shocked class that the sun will one day run out of power and condemn the whole of humanity to death.

Newcomer Max Records (pictured) plays young Max with delightful sincerity and exuberance as he reacts angrily to a careworn mother (Catherine Keener) distracted by career worries and a male friend (Mark Ruffalo), and to an older sister and teenage chums, only too happy to destroy Max’s childish fantasies. They literally crush an igloo he has built out of snow, and make him cry. These apparently uncaring oldsters inspire him to wish he could be in a magic land where he could be King, and everyone would do as he says.

And so we are transported to where the wild things are. They look like gigantic Muppets but behave like the angst-ridden inhabitants of a Woody Allen movie. Technically, they’re impressive, with the physicality of shaggy animals and the sophisticated facial mobility of CGI animations. Unfortunately, they’re more fun to look at than to listen to.

The more they talk, the less engaging they are. They’re morose and anxious, depressing and pathetic, and it’s hard to know why anyone would want to spend time with them. It’s like being trapped in a self-help meeting of Monsters Anonymous.

The one fully developed relationship is between Max and Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the most masculine and violent of the wild things. Carol is first to admire Max’s destructiveness (“There’s a spark to your work that can’t be taught!”). But gradually Carol becomes the one whose temper – and teeth - Max fears the most, and makes him pine for his mother.

I was never bored, but some children may be. Not a great deal happens and some of the events – such as the appearance of two owls not in the original – feel like padding.

Jonze darkens the book and loses too much of its sense of fun. Max’s imaginary world isn’t as naive and colourful as Sendak’s picture book. It’s closer to an Arthur Rackhamesque vision of twisted branches, and the predominant colours are brown and grey. Much that was implicit in the book is spelt out at excessive length, and the overlay of adult sensibility jars with the ostensibly boy’s-eye view.

Jonze has created one of the most offbeat, original and interesting films of the year. It’s just a pity he didn’t make it more accessible for children - and remove it a lot further from the therapist’s couch.

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