At the end of Where The Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze’s wondrous adaptation of the beloved Maurice Sendak classic, Catherine Keener, as the mother, gazes searchingly, adoringly, into the face of her son, just returned after briefly running away from home. Who are you, she seems to be thinking. What is going on inside that head?
The gift of this film is to give us a glimpse. It is, as Jonze has said, not so much a children’s film as a film about childhood. Most films “for” children are dispensed to them like candy, with a few knowing pop-culture references tossed in to keep the adults awake. Jonze and his collaborators pay children the respect of taking them seriously. As such, the film makes absorbing viewing for adults and children alike.
Critics will complain that not much really happens in Where the Wild Things Are . As in the famously laconic book, the story is simplicity itself: boy fights with mother. Boy fantasizes about voyaging to an island inhabited by strange monsters, who make him their king. Boy comes home. To be sure, Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers flesh out much of what is hinted at in the book. Yet Max, the boy, is basically a happy child, who loves his mother and who is clearly loved by her. No great crisis propels him on his journey, nor does he endure much in the way of the conventionally required ordeals once there.
But that’s looking at it from an adult point of view. To a child, everything is enormous. There’s a brief scene near the start in which nine-year-old Max sees his mother, who is divorced from his father, kissing another man—thrown in, one suspects, to appease adult sensibilities. But for Max, it is just as significant a part of his emotional state that one of his teenage sister’s friends has thoughtlessly caved in his snow fort.
In its strangeness, mystery, and simplicity, Where the Wild Things Are is about the deeply serious business of being a child, wrestling with emotions he can’t control in an adult world he cannot begin to understand. The film tracks the fierce storms rolling across Max’s mental landscape: his hurt and rage at being ignored by his family, his savage joy once in the kingdom of the Wild Things, where not only can he do what he likes, but wonder of wonders, can tell others what to do. It perfectly captures the language, thoughts and feelings of a boy of that age, the sense of home-movie observation heightened by the hand-held camera work.
Among the film’s small miracles is the performance of Max Records as Max. Any child actor must surmount an imposing paradox: the essence of childhood is to be unaware, but the essence of acting is to be aware. Watching a child playing a child, disbelief is hard to suspend. You keep wondering: would this child behave that way? Yet Records’s performance is of such uncanny naturalism as to erase any distinction between acting and being. As Max the king, he issues orders with confident relish, and takes such unforced, uncontained glee in the horseplay with the Wild Things that you forget the actor, and just see the kid.
As important an achievement are the Wild Things. What made Sendak’s slim book so memorable were his drawings of the monsters: their enigmatic, grinning faces as disturbing as they are playful. In the more literal medium of film, they have been given a backstory. Projections of Max’s own fevered emotional state, the Wild Things are essentially children: wilful, trusting, insecure, quick to anger, sensitive to slights, and with a deep longing for authority—a king. As large and comically violent as they are, they grapple with the same childhood dilemmas Max does. Can you be friends with more than one person at the same time? What happens after the sun explodes? Why won’t anybody listen to me?
Bringing them to life took a complicated mixture of puppetry, computer-generated imagery, and human actors. Yet it all works, effortlessly. The Wild Things’ faces, grave and kind and grotesque, are like gargoyles, archetypes from folk memory, yet endowed with infinite expressiveness. And the vocal performances, notably by James Gandolfini as Carol, the Wild Thing with whom Max forges the closest bond, and Catherine O’Hara, as the troublemaking Judith, beautifully convey the monsters’ oafish anxieties.
I don’t know whether it will be a hit. It may not—it’s so unlike anything else out there. But I’m absolutely certain people will be watching this film 50 years from now. It has the strangeness, the truth, and the respect for kids of a classic.