It feels like the fun wonderment of Where the Wild Things Are has been clobbered with a dirt clod and killed. What was once a fun and light-hearted story – at least to my childish mind – has been completely turned around to be a sad, melancholy story of losing innocence and growing up.
Maurice Sendak’s original story, first published in 1963, is no more than a couple hundred words and accompanied by wonderful illustrations of Wild Things and a boy dressed in a wolf costume. Director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) co-wrote the script with David Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and the two had to create entirely new plotlines to fill a feature length film. They must have been channeling some seriously dark mojo when they did, because what was once a story about a boy who conjures a world inhabited by Wild Things when sent to his room without supper now includes a single mother struggling to raise her kids, the threat of mankind’s extinction, and the horrors of eating frozen corn.
Jonze’s Wild Things world is beautiful, but so painful. For example, when Max (Max Records) is made their king, he’s asked, “will you keep out all the sadness?” This is just a portent for the type of reign he’s going to have – one with high expectations that is almost certainly doomed to fail. But it’s not all his fault; the Wild Things are an unruly bunch. They show aggression through the destruction, bicker endlessly, and pair up in weird friendships and pseudo-relationships.
Where the Wild Things Are is not without its charm – in fact, there’s quite a bit of it. Max’s imagination runs wild and he rewrite the rules as he goes, in only the way a child can. Yet the funniest lines are also the saddest; what kids don’t understand now is going to amaze them later when they can comprehend all of the layers present in the limited dialogue. Like when Max leads the Wild Things in a project to create the world’s best fort, even this great adventure is designed to be a place where only things happen that you want to have happen.
Playing the role of Max, the boy in the iconic wolf suit, Records is wonderful. The character is lovable, if not always likable, and Records handles himself beautifully opposite the furry creatures.
But it’s the Wild Things that really infuse the movie with magic. Created by Jim Henson’s Creative Shop, the larger-than-life plushies are fantastic. With real people running around inside them, across desserts and forest landscapes, the whole feel of the movie is much more intense. Providing the voices for the Wild Things are a fantastic James Gandolfini, a bitchy Catherine O’Hara, and an oddly maternal Lauren Ambrose, among others. That the facial expressions were digitally added later makes Records performance all the more impressive.
Parents taking children to see a lively, upbeat film are going to be very surprised. Lacking any experience with children, who’s to know how they’re going to react. Personally, the kid in me was glad to see Where the Wild Things Are once, but that was enough. It’s too melancholy to enjoy over and over again like the book. But then again, I may never read the book the same way again.