Spike Jonze – Where the Wild Things Are
(Warner Bros)
Words: James Emerson

The book is always better than the movie, they say. But when the former is a picture book with all of fifteen sentences and the latter is a multi-million dollar production running over an hour-and-a-half, we can safely ask: are the two even the same story? Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is undoubtedly a different creature than the 1963 classic by Maurice Sendak. It not only fleshes out themes that, with a bit of interpretation, can be found in the book, but it adds new layers of meaning. The result is a very adult, sometimes depressing, and ultimately beautiful and melancholy reflection on loneliness, the pains of friendship, jealousy, death, and the frustration of our dreams.

From the onset, Jonze and co-writer David Eggers tinge their retelling with the longing for companionship. Whereas Max’s mischief is unexplained in the book, it is provoked here by what he perceives to be his mother’s inattention: divorced, she is spending the evening with her boyfriend rather than him. Upset, Max runs away from home and into his imagination, where the movie follows him. The imagination of a child can make the fantastical palpable (wasn’t your childhood make-believe as real as anything else?), so we are able to see Max’s innermost thoughts, desires, and fears, because he creates an exotic world out of them, populated by strange Things.

These beasts—voiced by James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, and Lauren Ambrose—first come to Max as fierce monsters all too ready to eat him, but they soon reveal a rather gentler side and declare the boy to be their king after he promises to protect them from sadness. This struggle with sadness—and anger, and disappointment, and despair—follows Max and his newfound companions throughout the rest of the film, each successive sequence presents them with an obstacle to happiness: two unintelligible owls spur jealousy between friends; a chronically ignored goat tries to get to notice him; and a fortress, built to keep out sadness and pain, falls into ruin. When Gandolfini erupts into anger over their dashed hopes (even the sun is dying, he points out), we are reminded that this not a typical children’s movie.

But the content of Where the Wild Things Are should not be emphasized at the expense of its style. The wild things themselves were realized through a combination of live action performance, CGI, and animatronics; when Max’s mother cries at his return, I was struck then by how closely the creatures’ faces—and all of the emotions expressed thereon—had approximated humans’. And their world is visually striking as well, particularly in two sequences: Max’s first encounter with the wild things, appearing as obscured beasts silhouetted by fire in a dense forest, and the fortress itself. In short, what could have been a distraction and handicap to the movie—the depiction of the wild things and their land—was in fact its strength.

Through a child’s fantasy, Where the Wild Things Are lays bare the basic, pressing desire for love that each of us has. Had it stopped there, it would have only reached the level of many children’s movies, but it goes on to show the neuroses and fears that accompany that desire. There is no permanent solution to Max’s loneliness or fear of death, because it is a fact of life, like hunger or disease; the ending is happy insofar as he recognizes this fact.


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