Where the Wild Things Are director Spike Jonze’s (Being John Malkovich Adaptation) ambitious adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book has been referred to variously as “experimental” and “art-house” — and only occasionally in a derisive manner — by numerous movie critics and journalists. For all of their negative box-office implications the labels do come with certain benefits the most important of which is a little-known loophole in the filmmaking code that renders certain films largely exempt from standard rules of story structure to which more orthodox films are expected to adhere.
That is they’re expected to have a structure. Where the Wild Things Are is above such trifles. Sendak’s source material with its 10 lines of text is largely devoid of any real storyline so the task fell to Jonze and his co-writer Dave Eggers to manufacture one. Given essentially a blank slate with which to work they used the opportunity to explore the id of a child reeling from the painful aftermath of divorce. And what a mind-bending journey it is.
Newcomer Max Records stars as Max a rambunctious young boy with a taste for mischief and an overabundance of energy. It’s a volatile combination if left unchecked and it eventually erupts in disastrous fashion one evening when Max’s exasperated overworked mother (played by Catherine Keener) has the audacity to invite her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo on screen for all of a nanosecond) over for dinner.
Confronted by the alarming sight of his mother sneaking a kiss with a man who clearly isn’t his dad Max acts out in hideous fashion prompting a similarly hideous overreaction from his mortified mom. Stung by her harsh words Max makes a break for it running away to a wooded sanctuary on the bank of a river where he climbs aboard an unattended sailboat and is transported to a strange and distant land.
It’s there that he meets the titular Wild Things a close-knit if highly dysfunctional group of furry gargantuan beings with oversized heads and normal unaltered human voices. There are seven in all: sensitive temperamental Carol (James Gandolfini); amiable level-headed Douglas (Chris Cooper); skeptical smart-alecky Judith (Catherine O’Hara); patient avuncular Ira (Forest Whitaker); meek insecure Alexander (Paul Dano); tender affectionate KW (Lauren Ambrose); and mysterious intimidating Bull (Michael Berry Jr.).
And that’s it. There’s no villain to be found in Where the Wild Things Are. (At least not a tangible one anyway. I suppose “society” or “fear” might be considered among Max’s antagonists; then again “fear” may also have been Gandolfini’s character. I can’t remember.)
Together Max and his new companions play games destroy trees build forts and bicker — to what end it’s never exactly clear. As Max frolics about his imaginary world with his crew of overgrown H.R. Pufnstuf rejects each of whom is meant to symbolize an emotion of some kind it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s no real point to the proceedings.
Which is why there’s no resolution to Where the Wild Things Are either. And shame on you for expecting one. If you want a neat and tidy resolution go see Couples Retreat or some other “mainstream” release philistine. This is Spike Jonze’s playground and if you dare subject him to rules or limits of any kind he may just pick up his genius ball and go home.
The real brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are is how its director aided by the extraordinary work of cinematographer Lance Acord and his production design team is able to plug directly into the amygdalae of adults of a certain age and background effectively disabling their capacities for critical thinking. It could be the greatest Jackass prank Jonze has ever pulled.
Where the Wild Things Are is not a movie for kids and not because it’s particularly violent or scary — indeed it’s downright tame compared to the last Harry Potter flick. Children by definition aren’t nearly as susceptible to the film's naked appeals to nostalgia and as parents’ eyes well up while they watch it behind rose-colored lenses their offspring will be texting “WTF?” to their similarly bored friends as the film meanders toward its disappointing conclusion.
Freud on the other hand would absolutely adore Where the Wild Things Are particularly during its climactic sequence in which Max frantically fleeing a rampaging Carol literally leaps into KW's gooey womb which presumably represents the comfort and safety of a mother’s unconditional love. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if several years from now the movie becomes a fixture at child psychologists’ offices serving as a sort of multimedia Rorschach test to help therapists better understand their young patients. But that’s pretty much the extent of the film’s utility.
Here’s the real symbolism inherent in Where the Wild Things Are: Max symbolizes Jonze while the mother represents the director’s expectations for the audience. After Jonze runs off and blithely plays with our emotions for a few desultory hours giving us only ambiguity tinged with melancholy in return he expects us to reward him with a loving embrace and a hot bowl of soup.
It’s all rather childish.
Based on E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.