Children’s book marvels as film
October 23, 2009
What kind of movie can a 10-sentence long children’s book make? Apparently, a damn good one.
Spike Jonze said he wanted “Where the Wild Things Are,” an adaptation of the 1963 Caldecott Medal-winning classic, to, above all, capture what it is like to be a nine-year-old boy. He has succeeded, crafting a roughly-hewn exploration of a child’s imagination filled with love, anger, joy and sorrow – none of which youthful innocence can articulate, or even comprehend.
The boy is Max, played by 12-year-old Max Records in a performance that is surely a new benchmark for child actors. Max is having a bit of a rough go at things lately. His divorced mother is distracted by work and a new boyfriend, his sister by teenage hormones. The only thing Max has is his imagination, fueled out of necessity by his unrelenting loneliness. A tender first act allows us a glimpse into Max’s world entirely from his perspective. Handheld cameras and low-level shooting place us right there with Max as he builds an igloo in the yard, and as his sister’s friends destroy it; as he tries to win the attentions of his mother, and as he loses to her computer. The world is a cruel place, lessons that Max learns through tears and hurt. The emotions boil over at the dinner table as Max yells at his mother. She yells back, sending Max hurtling into the night to sail away, adrift and all alone with nothing but his thoughts.
Max stumbles upon a wild and overgrown island inhabited by the namesake wild things. Max meets them as they are destroying their own homes, and quickly jumps in, realizing that here playtime replaces pain.
The wild things, brought to stunning realization through a seamless blend of muppetry and CGI, are softer than the original illustrations; there are still sharp claws and teeth, but they are offset by a cuddly and inquisitive nature. After an initial attempt to eat Max, the creatures discover the wildness in this boy near exceeds their own, and duly appoint him king.
The danger here for Jonze was to not reinvent a beloved classic, or attempt to dissect it for us. Instead he gently expands the story into a fully fleshed out world in which we are welcome to lose ourselves in. As events unfold in this land of make believe, there is a sense of newness and wonderment, but also an undercurrent of familiarity; Max’s life back home is redrawn out here as an overblown mockery of reality, allowing him to make sense of the world on his own terms. The wild things begin to take concrete form as shadows of the people Max left behind, maybe even as reflections of himself. As Max slowly begins to lose control over the wild things, and his raw realm of fantasy begins to crumble, the allure of home, and the stunning realization of what he has left behind, slowly pulls Max back.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is a rare and powerful film. It does the impossible and films fantasy as absolutely real, and its primitive nature masks a complicated and emotional depth that will escape younger audiences. But this haunting film isn’t really meant for them; it isn’t about childhood, but childhood’s ending, and what we gain and lose from that transition. The mirror it holds to the world exposes both beauty and terror, making it one of the year’s best. To paraphrase one of the wild things, I could eat it up, I love it so.
Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.