Where the Wild Things Are Review

Oct 14, 2009 | 10:15am EDT

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.

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