The plot is simple: Max (brilliantly personified by Max Records) has a fight with his family, sails off to a foreign land, becomes a king and builds a fort, has a fight with the Wild Things, stops being king, and then goes back home to his family. No spoilers there. The message of this movie is clear, and perfectly voiced by a melancholy K.W. (a Wild Thing voiced by Lauren Ambrose): It’s hard to be a family. And it is.
Armed with that knowledge, my thoughts on Where The Wild Things Are tinkle in my head like a distant wind-chime. Hard to pin down exactly where the noises come from, but I do believe that’s part of the magic. I am an adult who is still a child and, fundamentally, I think that many of us are. Does the world amaze you, even though you get frustrated by things that you don’t understand? Don’t you want to create your own communal utopia? Does it sting when you get hurt, and moreso when you hurt others? Is life confusing, the world big, and do you ever just need to escape? Then this movie will speak to you. Is it perfect? No. But nothing is. And maybe that’s the most perfect thing about it.
For the Young
For children, there’s plenty to like about Where The Wild Things Are. The creatures are essentially large muppets, obviously humans in animal suits. While some see this as a weakness, I like that analog effects, while minding their CGI-enhanced expressions, are still offered up to an audience as a legitimate method of bringing iconic children’s illustrations to life. I think it should have been done that way, and I’m glad it was. Children will enjoy the Wild Things, the visuals, the grand, sprawling landscapes and buildings, the humor, the heart, the fun. I don’t think that a child would be disappointed in this movie, but they may find it a bit obtuse at times, perhaps boring. I believe that most children, bless them, will understand the film better than you’d expect.
For children, the movie may be a bit frightening at moments — Carol, Max’s Wild Thing BFF (voiced by James Gandolfini) has a bit of a temper problem. Surrounding the characters’ conflicts, there are some dark moments in the film. There’s a general melancholia about the tale, and it can’t be helped. It’s beautiful, and it works, but that may not be what children are expecting.
Another quick concern for the very young: Max — understanding though we are — basically throws a temper tantrum, and then runs away. In real life, that is not okay, or an acceptable way to behave. We are caught up for an hour or so in the Wild Things’ world, and he does get home safely to his mother, but I felt as if I was almost asked to forget that a child ran away from his home on a dark night. Not a problem for most, probably, as movies are about suspending belief and real-world rules for a few moments, but the element is there nonetheless.
For the Young At Heart
With each successive movie, we’re learning about the cinematic mission of Spike Jonze. Jonze takes on really ambitious, difficult stories to tell — layered, nuanced, complex, motivated stories — and then he tells them. Unpretentiously and without comment, Jonze just lets you in on the mess of who-or-whatever’s life and world he’s having us peek into. His movies have a meek quality to them, but a power within them to extract a specific emotion. Where The Wild Things Are is no different. This movie is beautiful, successful in its task, and moving. But you might not like it. It’s darker than it is whimsical, sadder than it is sweet.
The movie explores, with each Wild Thing, a different child-like character trait: there’s the shy, mute, lumbering one; the searching, wise K.W. (Lauren Ambrose); Forest Whittaker voices lovestruck Ira, who is simple, but talented; his love, Judith (Catherine O’Hara) the pessimist; Alexander, who no one listens to; Douglas (Chris Cooper), the loyal friend; and Carol. Carol is an overgrown kid: he’s idealistic, sensitive, and cannot control his wild emotions. He longs for freedom, but also for guidance. He wants to know things, but doesn’t understand why he has to worry about them. In his frustrations, Carol — like all of us — destroys things, and only things that he loves.
For the Mothers
I’m afraid that this will be overlooked, but Catherine Keener’s role as Max’s mom is heavenly. From a perfect picture of many a mom’s simultaneous parenting and working in her office, to having to do the nurturing and the disciplining all alone and sometimes all at once, to her gentle-yet-undeniably-tough softly wearing face, she is perfect. One expression — while she is at her computer, and Max is looking up at her while tugging at her pantyhose — was especially haunting. She looked just like my mother. I had seen that exact face. It’s beautiful, and sad — mostly just tired from wearing an infinite number of hats.
If you grew up with a mother, especially a single one, the last shot of her face — go see the movie, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about — redeems any sadness that the movie provokes in you, and leaves a sweet taste in your mouth.
The Upside: Beautiful story, beautiful effects, lulling soundtrack. Perfect casting, especially in the voice acting. Unpretentiously layered; sweet.
The Downside: Not necessarily for children, and the Wild Things are — at times — a tad clunky.
On The Side: Authentic though it may be, this movie will appeal to douchey hipsters. If you are upper-middle-class, liked I Heart Huckabees, have Buddy Holly glasses, listen to rap ironically, and/or believe yourself to be an undiscovered genius or otherwise tortured and unique person, this is right in your wheelhouse for Movie of the Year.