Where the Wild Things Are is note after note a love song to childhood – and every facet of that world that we live in when we’re not quite a part of this concrete world, where we can see beyond what things really are to what they might be, when we still feel like kings of the universe even when we’re scared and alone. I realize that you’ve probably already figured out whether you want to see it or not, but I loved this film so much that I felt the need to nail down exactly what I loved about it.
For the cynical – my usual disclaimer that this isn’t paid for by the movie or the studio or that trippy girl wearing a wolf costume to the screening I was at. At FSR, we believe in the magic of movies we love and feel comfortable shouting from the rooftops about them.
And I flat out loved this movie.
1. A Time Machine To Ten Years Old
From the opening scenes, the movie is completely from Max’s young perspective. Spike Jonze has done a great job of making a hole in some snow look like an ice fortress to the audience. The camera angles are low which helps getting back down to that level, but over all the feel of the film is an excuse to remember things how you used to remember them. To see a toy boat as an adventure on the high seas, and to see a pile of clothes and cardboard boxes as the rocketship that it really is.
2. It’s Darker Than You Think
I feel like most of the reasons I give should come with the disclaimer that the film isn’t all that perfect for children, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on that sort of thing. I’d probably be surprised by what most kids can handle, but suffice it to say that this flick isn’t all bluebirds singing songs about how fun working all day in the forest is. Reverting to childhood means reverting to a time where everything is bigger than you, you don’t understand most of what’s going on around you, and things are genuinely scary. The film essentially mirrors the darker tone of the book where the absence of a father looms large over everything, a family doesn’t always act like you want it to, and the seas are choppy. At the heart is an emotional truth that it’s tough being a family, and Where the Wild Things Are doesn’t pull back from how hard that can really be. Even if your family includes a giant goat-monster. Fortunately as a balance, it also populates the world with great bits of humor and life that come from left field or from the strong characters that have been created on screen.
3. The World is Breathtaking
At first, the sweeping landscapes occupied with strange, wonderful beasts will seem ethereal, but I started to realize that everything in the film essentially exists within our world. It’s just the best-looking stuff from it. Wild forests, warm deserts, and crashing sea shores all captured by beautiful cinematography combine to make the film a postcard tour of a place from our imaginations that’s reachable in real life. The look of the Wild Things is perfect, and the giant fort they make is also a sight to see stemming straight from the sketchbook of my childhood.
My usual hatred of children in film should make this point even stronger. The actor they got to play Max – Max Records – is perfect. He’s fun to watch and manages to be (for lack of a better word) an every-kid who fills his day and his mother’s ears with stories. His character is stuck at an age where he’s starting to think and ask questions, but he’s not quite old enough to be told or understand the answers. Records is fantastic at characterizing that and pulling every bit of sympathy or joy out of a scene. He’s also joined by good performances from Catherine Keener and great voice performances from James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose.
5. The Music
This may be a splitting point for some, but the soundtrack is tailor-made for any indie kid sensibility. Using simple instruments or the convenient sound of a toy xylophone or children’s choir, Karen O and the Kids have created something that balances between film score and playroom symphony. It’s subtle, but it always elevates what’s happening on screen, especially since a lot of the film is a slow-burn with minimal dialog.
6. It’s Challenging But Fair
It would have been all too easy to create another children’s escapism movie where the parents are cruel, the big sisters are cruel, and a fantasy land of no worries awaits us all. Where the Wild Things Are has its fair share, but it’s more rounded than that. Catherine Keener’s character is a mother trying to make life work who clearly loves her son and sweetly dotes on him but doesn’t understand what to do when his built-up frustration is unleashed. What’s created is a realistic-looking family which helps paint a better picture of childhood, family, and gives the flow of the story (and where it ends up) a natural, understated feel. Simply put, there’s not an insincere bone in this movie’s body, but that doesn’t make it easier to swallow. It makes it much harder. Plus, instead of following a standard story arc where things are great, things get tough, and a solution lets everyone sail off into the sunset – it’s a film where a kid gets a chance to solve things his way. And since a child doesn’t always know how to make sense of the world or how to fix things, it takes the story in some very challenging directions.
7. Kid Logic
One of my favorite things in life is the completely accurate, yet completely wrong logic of children. They see the world in a different way, and have a lot to teach those of us who have forgotten how to look at a tree and see the crow’s nest of a pirate ship. It’s a difficult task to capture that point of view, and beyond Records playing his character well, the writing from Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers nails down the world from the view of someone who’s 4-feet, 4-inches tall with incredible accuracy. The way Max sees the world makes logical sense, but is usually wrong, and since we’re already seeing the world his way, we have to go on the journey and learn the lessons along with him. Get ready, for better or for worse, to revert back to your childhood.