Directed by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Max Records, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Harra, Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper and Forrest Whittaker.
Written by: Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers
In Wide Release.
Let me say, first and foremost, this is really not a kids movie. Really. All the reviewers take pains to tell you that, but parents don't seem to listen, because the theatre was filled with crying kids, terrified, and unable to understand. Go see it, by all means, but don't bring your kids.
Where the Wild Things Are is a movie about childhood. Specifically, it is about growing up in a broken home.
Max is a lonely imaginative child. His teenage sister abandons him for her friends. His father is non-existent. And his mother is over-worked, tired, and, on the night Max carries out his mischief, entertaining a much younger boyfriend at the house. Max throws hit fit, bites his mother, and runs out the door, through the streets, and escapes to where the wild things are. (This is one marked difference in the film from the book. In the book, Max is disciplined, sent to his room, and his room becomes the wide world. In the film he runs away. I'm not sure I like this change, though perhaps it is minor.)
The wild things are more barbaric than wild. Carol (Gandolfini) is busy destroying their newly finished houses. The others are constantly bickering: Judith (O'Harra) thinks everyone thinks they are better than her; Alexander (Paul Dano) wants to be accepted; and "The Bull" stands in the background silent and lonely. They each represent some of the hard emotions of childhood: uncertainty, anger, loneliness, neediness, trust.
There is an ominous feeling in this wild place (majestic as the scenery is). Next to the crown and scepter they give to Max is a skeleton--and there are grave references to near-cannibalism. This is largely an allegorical device--Max could easily be consumed by these emotions. And children from broken homes often are consumed by despair, anger, and loneliness. Max's innocence and friendliness keep him a step ahead of danger--for some reason he truly loves these wild things (much the same way we adults truly love our children now matter how mischievous they are).
Whether it was Spike Jonze's intention to show the hurt and burden a child bears when growing up in a broken home, I do not know. He does a wonderful job of it, though. Where the Wild Things Are is really a film for the generation (of which I am at the tale end) that grew up reading this book. It was a generation that, for the first time, found divorce commonplace. And those in this generation that do have children are likely to be divorced or single as well. In that way, this film is incredibly successful: it says:Stop! think about the repercussions of your actions and your choices; think about the children.
But the movie offers no satisfactory answer (though, really, is there one?). Max comes home, and gratefully eats his dinner, but we don't know that he has learned anything, or changed in anyway. The one sublime moment of the film is there at the dinner table--his mother has fallen asleep, waiting for Max to eat his food. Max looks at her with so much love that he looks older and wiser than her. It is a beautiful moment--but it is unsupported by the narrative. There is nothing but that one scene to make me think that Max has learned that mischief is bad, and that he doesn't need to be lonely, because he is loved.
(A side note: Jonze used puppets, rather than CGI, for the Wild Things. This choice was spot on. Max interacted with real beings, wild and strange though they were, which made it so much easier to suspend disbelief. It has made them more terrifying--terrifying because they were real.)
Final verdict: I'd give it 3 out of 5 stars, and I do want to see it again. I think it is worth the time to see, but I don't think it is an emotional tour de-force--but it is definitely worth your time.