Film review: Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Director: Spike Jonze

Cast: Max Records, James Gandolfini (voice), Lauren Ambrose (voice), Catherine Keener

Year: 2009

Blog of Big Ideas’ Top 250 Films Ever

Rarely do I get to sit down to watch a film that despite its visual tenderness and innocence, manages to dig deep in my soul and carve itself a small crevasse in my memory where it will remain for a long long time. The beautiful Where the Wild Things Are, wonderfully directed by Spike Jonze, is one of those rare films that had I not been able to see it, my life would have been a little less complete and a little less special than it is today.

What Spike Jonze has done is not without merit for he has not only crafted a touching piece of film, but he managed to bring a wonderful story to life from a slender children’s book first written in the 1960s that runs for less than 40 pages containing as many images as it does words. Crucially, the screenplay did not seek to interpret what was at the heart of the story, instead Jonze collaborated with Dave Eggers to expand upon the central message by infusing it with richer characters surrounded by colors, textures and incredible shots of forests, endless seas and wavy sand dunes.

Where the Wild Things Are is about a boy who after fighting with his mother who calls him “a wild thing” rushes out of his home (in the original he’s sent to his room to skip dinner) and creates a dream world where he manifests some of his frustrations and emotions. The boy of about 8 or 9 is played with surprising range and energy by newcomer Max Records. His is a performance that exceeds his young years, drawing from unexpected places to reach at our souls and pull a few strings. Max feels alone and misunderstood and, to some degree, we can all relate to that, whether we have been defined by this feeling, or have just been affected by it on a few occasions.

In the dream world Max creates he comes across a group of furry creatures that are most likely an extension of his collection of stuffed animals in his room. The creatures all live in an island to which Max arrives dressed up like a wolf and steering a boat after “escaping” from his furious mother. Soon enough, Max must use all of his imagination to save his own neck and pretend he has great powers befitting of a king. Surprisingly, the creatures all fall for it, quickly embracing the kid as one of their own, treating him as their savior and king. What is interesting is that these creatures all seem to respond to Max with a childlike innocence that fitting young teenagers that are slightly older (and taller) than our protagonist.

Among the creatures is Carol, voiced by an unrecognizable and effective James Gandolfini. At first, Carol seems to be the mirror image of Max whose frustration with his family and the world that surrounds him makes him channel his anger through violence and destruction. His anger comes across as playful and innocent at first but, as time passes, Carol takes a darker turn, frustrated that Max has not quite delivered as their savior. More than any other character, Carol is surprisingly layered and contradictory, looking like an odd stuffed animal but who comes across as a very emotional human who, despite his best intentions, cannot seem to get a grasp on his emotions and overcome his constant loneliness.

In this peculiar group of odd personalities, there is also KW, voiced by Lauren Ambrose. She begins as more of a mystery than Carol and a lot more distant. She seems wary of the newcomer, probably not wanting to get too attached or fearing what might happen if things turn for the worse. However, as the story progresses, she is the one that ends up defending and understanding Max like a protective big sister would. KW’s character is yet another manifestation of Max’s inner emotions and frustrations as he wishes his real-life sister would be a little more understanding and supportive.

From a technical point of view, Spike Jonze’s film contains expertly realized creatures that look odd, threatening, cuddly, funny, angry and beautiful all at the same time. Their eyes are large and filled with emotion, an interesting blend of people wearing over-sized costumes and CGI that makes it all look very real and believable. Similarly, the landscapes are simply exquisite and so is the art direction and music that accompanies some of the moving sequences that are contained within this most beautiful of films.

Spike Jonze’ camerawork is personal and right in the thick of the action. He stays close to Max so we can feel what he feels and see what he sees, not once does he shy away from emotion, relying in a talented actor that gives the film an existential core that is timeless and humanizing.

I will close by saying that I wish the film had not been pitched as such a decidedly family-oriented piece since it is perhaps a bit too dark and mature at its core for most kids to understand. In fact, it is a film that could make anyone reflect upon their place in the planet, or about the memory of a lost one. Where the Wild Things Are is a deeply existential movie that if approached with the right mindset and just in the right mood, could stay with you for a very long time, maybe even forever.

Rating: 4.5/5 (masterpiece)

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11 thoughts on “Film review: Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

    1. I’m glad you liked it, even if you didn’t think of it as highly as I did.
      My opinion might have been different had I seen it at the wrong moment. I definitely think it’s one of those films that you have to watch when your moods calls for it. I almost gave it a perfect score actually.

  1. Very imaginative and emotional, but also didn’t do much for me. Jonze is a great director though and he finds way to show how children look at the world, and it what it’s like to basically grow-up. Good review.

  2. Your final paragraph couldn’t be more true. I remember going to see this and the opening scene was pretty decidedly un-child friendly, in my eyes. It’s a very deep character driven film, disguised with what look like child friendly cuddly characters.

    I love the film. It’s the emotional punch it packs. Max Records is brilliant. I always worry about films where the lead is a young actor. It could either go brilliantly well, or horribly wrong.

    1. I love that you love it :P
      Max Records definitely deserves a bit more credit for such a precociously mature performance. I was very much impressed by the way the film looked, by the acting, by how oddly emotional it was.
      One of the most haunting pieces of cinema I’ve had the pleasure to see in a long time. Almost a perfect score for me and I don’t give those out easily…haha

  3. I haven’t seen this one but this sounds like one of those films I have to be in the right mood to really appreciate it. I’ll let you know when I get around to seeing this but I’m a bit more interested now after reading your review.

    1. I definitely advice you to watch it at the right moment. Try timing it so you’re alone and feeling a bit on the down side of things, maybe simply alienated. I was feeling a little like that when I decided to watch it, so give it a try and you might find it as profound as I did.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. I tend to agree with Ruth in that it seems I would have to be in the mood to watch this one. I wanted to see it when I first saw the trailers because I remembered reading the books as a boy, but then as time got closer I decided I didn’t really want to see it. I’m not sure if I still will but I am glad to read your review.

  5. I agree with you – I went into this with quite low expectations, and came out feeling like I’d seen one of the best adaptations of a children’s book made. I thought it was fantastic that the writers and Jonze didn’t feel the need to elaborate Mendak’s slight story into some huge quest to fill out a feature length movie, and instead just made a film about what it’s like to be a kid. Once again, thanks to spammer Alyson, I found your excellent reviews!

  6. No matter how hard I tried to write an honest review, I really couldn’t do this film justice. This piece has probably been the surprise of the year so far. It quickly became one of my personal favorites as soon as the credits rolled in as it feels so intimate, so personal and yet so familiar.
    Thanks for the very kind words.

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