Hitting Refresh: Where the Wild Things Are

Dir. Spike Jonze

There are different quotes out there that suggest anywhere from 60% to 99% of the director's job can be taken care of in casting, before the camera even rolls. Spike Jonze, the wizardly director behind Where the Wild Things Are, would likely take issue with this simplification (or the other one that says the majority of a director's work is just showing up) given the amount of obstacles he had to overcome to bring his adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved book to the screen. However, part of Wild's peculiarity is that we only see one human face for the majority of the film - that of the young troublemaking boy, Max. So, not unlike finding the right Antoine in The 400 Blows or Elliot in E.T., casting was indeed a huge part to making this movie work.

In this regard, and with the amazing cast of voices that fills out the rest of the cast, the movie is a smashing success. Max Records, as the runaway boy who transports himself to a fantastical world of playful beasties, is a remarkably tenderhearted and emotionally present young actor, the kind you might refer to as "a natural."

But make no mistake about it, Jonze's adaptation is peculiar in many ways. I'm not particularly well-versed in the source material, but I'm pretty sure it isn't a phantasmagoric exploration of a pre-teen's psyche as he tries to come to grips with his mom and dad separating and not getting enough attention. At times it can get profoundly deep, as the different monsters that inhabit the get-away island Max has run off to take on the words and personalities of the people in his life. It's likely not the kind of thing audiences will expect from the film, but Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers have created a strange and beautiful window into a transitional period of life when teddy bears start being left behind and the imaginary world takes a backseat to the real world.

Max's decision to runaway comes after a handful of early scenes where he struggles to be acknowledged by his older sister and single mom. Sis is off hanging out with the older cool kids and mom (Catherine Keener) is busy with work and trying to woo Mark Ruffalo. On his own, Max is building some pretty sweet snow forts and bedroom forts, but with no one but himself to appreciate their design and craftsmanship. Set to the tune of Karen O's cover of the Daniel Johnston tune "Worried Shoes," all this loneliness is perfectly captured in a brief scene of Max outside in the snow, looking through the front window as his sister refuses to acknowledge his existence.

There's a wonderful soulfulness to Max Records' performance, and when he's working with the never-not-great Keener, they even manage to make the standard "juggling work and kids" scenes feel fresh. Eventually, when she tries to have a romantic dinner with Mark Ruffalo, Max puts on his animal suit and rebels. It culminates in a tense and chaotic moment of playful anger where Max bites his mom and, shocked that he actually hurt her, runs away, ending up in a Never Never Land of sorts. 

After drifting along on a small boat that looks quite similar one we saw him playing with earlier, Max finds a group of tall, furry monsters, with horns, claws and insecurities, who are in the process of destroying thehomes they'd built - which, it should be noted, are individual pods woven out of branches. This is significant since, once Max is taken in by the temperamental beasties and is crowned king, most of his efforts are to try and bring the group together, starting with sleeping in one big pile.  

Unlike the Wizard of Oz, which went crisp and clean when Dorothy arrived on the other side of the rainbow, this film goes green and organic. When Max wakes up in his monster pile, you can almost smell the topsoil, dirty fingernails and matted hair.

For the next hour or so, we're immersed in a kind of kid logic, as Max struggles to be king of the wild things and how to make his monsters happy and co-existing. Much like the mind of a nine or ten-year old, desires for rules and order that make sense compete and conflict with feelings of selfishness and jealously, and much of what we learn is through the sometimes brutal process of trial and error. This is how Max learns that families and friendships need patience, understanding and a certain amount of selflessness in order to work, and it's how we learn about what Max's relationship with his dad was like and the many unresolved issues he has over his absence. 

Obviously, these are Big Issues for a movie based on a 300-word kids book, and it prompts the question many people have asked: Who exactly is this movie for? (My snotty critic answer is: Anyone who likes good, thoughtful movies.) When this adaptation came out, there were many disappointed people that felt the film should be aimed at the same kiddos who liked the book. However, I think those who are familiar with the spirit of the book and have grown up, like Jonze, with a fond memory of Sendak's work, will appreciate the humanity on display here. As well, fans of Jonze's previous work will admire the craftsmanship and the depth of the movie's themes.

Films centered around someone Max's age rarely explore their mind quite like Where the Wild Things Are does. The movie embraces the way a ten year-old's emotions can turn on a dime, and the way their desires for independence, attention and validation compete with each other. It does this through a group of monsters, most of whom struggle with insecurity and finding harmony with one another. At the head of the group is Carol (voiced by an amazing James Gandolfini), who vacillates wildly between fun-loving, fear and anger; then there's Judith (Catherine O'Hara) and Ira (Forest Whitaker) a rather dull couple; Alexander (Paul Dano) is highly insecure, self-conscious and meek; Douglas (Chris Cooper) acts like Carol's enabler; and KW (Lauren Ambrose) is the elusive, intelligent and protective female monster. Oh, and there's The Bull, who's well... mysterious and vaguely menacing.

As king of the monsters, Max falls into some standard parenting traps, such as playing favorites, being unable to follow through on a promise and getting caught in a lie that was told with the best intentions. Max tries to keep everyone happy with fun and games and building cool forts, but as Judith tells him, "Happiness isn't always the best way to be happy." It's a hard pill to swallow, but Max learns that keeping a family together requires compromises, sacrifices, and understanding. And through the prickly relationship between Carol and KW, he gets some insight and works though some of his unprocessed feelings about his parent's divorce. Yeah, pretty deep stuff - a lot of which is going to fly right over the heads of younger viewers.

People of all ages will dig the practical special effects of Max's monsters. Unlike movies that rely heavily on CGI effects, the subtle work done to touch up the expressions and movements of the flesh and blood actors wearing lovingly designed furry suits still holds up some ten years later. Max Record's performance remains a wonder as well, and it is no doubt also due to the practical effects and the movie's embrace of the caked-in dirt on their fur, the snot under their noses and the tears in their eyes. Fully assembled, the special effects that are there are not a distraction - instead they actually work as they should, to make the movie more realistic.

Each year there are only a few movies that call the viewer back to revisit the stories they tell. Where the Wild Things Are has a significant pull on me - each time I watch it new layers unfold. What was once a moment of playtime logic (those weird birds) becomes a fascinating metaphor for the feelings of isolation and exclusion that a young boy can feel, even within their own family. And when things like deserts, a giant dog or severe weather enter the picture, you begin to piece together how time and outside elements influence this fantasy world Max has created. There're deep waters in this film and the more you think about it the deeper it gets. Spike Jonze has made multiple films that get better over the years, but I think this one has the biggest heart of all of them.