Film Review: Where the Wild Things Are

Max is crowned king

Max is crowned king

In an essay entitled “The Splendors of Crap,” published in his new book Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon, shares his distaste for contemporary kids’ movies:

“The new studio-made CGI products are like unctuous butlers of the imagination, ready to serve every need or desire as it arises; they don’t leave anything implied, unstated, incomplete. There is no room in them for children.”

If this description fits many recent kids’ releases, it’s certainly not true of Spike Jonze’s beautiful film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, in which everything is left implied, unstated, and incomplete. Jonze and fellow writer Dave Eggers have stretched Maurice Sendak’s picture-book text into an intense, psychological dream that is more meditative than manic. Like the original story, the film bypasses cozy clichés and taps right into the unsettling wildness of human feelings.

I loved the first scenes at home, when Max feels ignored, and the camera angles and music (and even the great title font) expertly capture his volatile, furious moods, which ramp up to an epic tantrum. This isn’t just a shouting match; Max, in a perfectly designed wolf suit (ratty, well-loved, identical to Sendak’s original drawings), sinks his teeth into his mother’s arm in a pure white rage and flies out into the night, where his imagination sends him to the Wild Things. The slippery shifts between the human and beasty qualities in all of us is a big part of the story, and all of the actors who lend their voice to the Wild Things expertly animate their characters with aching, real emotions. The action is also close to a kid’s real world: rather than car chases and explosions, the most frenetic scenes involve fort-building (and fort-smashing) and dirt-clod fights.

I loved the raw honesty in every scene, especially those between Max and his mom (the wordless ending is wonderful), and the script that, like the book, jumps right into primal issues that therapists talk through with adults every day. The movie leaves plenty of room for viewers to connect the melancholy story to their own feelings and experiences, and the effect is powerful. But, as I watched, I wondered how kids would respond. Would the comparatively simple plotline keep their attention? Would all the complicated emotional dynamics among the Wild Things puzzle them to the point of boredom? Then, towards the end of the movie, any worries that I had about kids connecting with the film were totally erased. From the back of the theater, we heard a young person’s sob, followed by a single wail of “MAAAX!” 

Stay tuned for a response from my movie partner, Booklist staffer Courtney Jones, and let us know what you thought about the film. Its release was a year later than expected; was it worth the wait?

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