I can’t say that I really understood Where The Wild Things Are when I read it as a kid. Sadly, 30 years later, I can’t say that I understand the new Spike Jonze directed big-screen adaptation of this children’s classic either. While the visuals were great, and the characters (especially the Wild Things themselves, of course) were incredible-looking, I’m sure that I was not alone in my head-scratching. At the showing I attended, there were some dad-kid pairs who left quite early in the movie and later there were even little kids wandering around the theatre (having grown bored with the film’s pacing — which was more even more languid and chatty than Jonze’s breakout movie, Being John Malkovich). My guess is that the objective was to capture the hearts and minds of those who may have grown up with Maurice Sendak’s original book, but definitely an audience who had grown up.
Regardless, the story’s not complicated. Imaginative little boy Max is feeling a bit neglected by his mom and sister. After a tantrum and fight with his mom, he makes a break for it and ends up sailing on a magical boat out to another place where large-yet-cuddly monsters all live together in a kind of tribe. Max tells them that he’s their king and they happily agree to accept him. After much play and heart-to-heart conversing, conflicts and frustrations start to creep in and eventually, Max returns home the way he came, having made some new weird friends on in a magical place. As a kid’s story, it didn’t seem to have enough story or drama to fill up a feature length movie, but I guess that’s only if you don’t give the Wild Things all kinds of personalities and issues. In typical indie-film fashion, the character chat a lot about themselves, revealing how they’re driven by oddly off-kilter motivations and behavioural tendencies. I’m reluctant to delve too deeply into this aspect as I have to remind myself that it’s still a kids’ story. I guess part of the problem is that it didn’t really play out like one.
As mentioned, the Wild Things were brought amazingly to life. At first glance they seem like actors in costumes, but it becomes quickly obvious that more movie magic is at work, because they also look fully-realised (as much as a giant cockatoo monster, or a part lion, part muppet creature with horns and a long tail can be fully-realised). Their lips moved naturally and their faces (which really did look like muppets) were subtly expressive and moved very well when they were talking. I would love to see a making-of video for this film. The voices were wonderful as well: James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, and Lauren Ambrose made all the dialogue sound very natural. If you closed your eyes, you’d have thought it was normal, contemporary humans speaking.
I guess the main failing of this film is being too sophisticated for itself. Clearly people came (with their kids) expecting a kids’ movie. And while in many ways it is one, the dialogue and the pacing are totally not kid friendly (unless you’re trying to put them to bed — it would work on adults as well). The original picture book had the right balance of childish wonder and creature fun, with just a touch of sensitivity to a kid’s mindset. The movie, trying to appeal to the child deep down in all of us, ends up becoming a drawn-out, and a bit of a snore. (3 out of 5)