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California Literary Review

Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are


Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are

Although studios balked at the film’s maturity, believing it might be too scary for children, it will appeal to kids and adults alike. Inside all of us there’s a child who yearns to break free, and the film’s beauty lies in its ability to portray unrefined human emotion and the vastness of the imagination. Expect Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are to ignite the minds of generations to come; spending 90 minutes inside a child’s mind has never felt so cathartic and enchanting.

Movie Poster: Where the Wild Things Are
Where the Wild Things Are

Directed by Spike Jonze
Screenplay by Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers
Based on the book by Maurice Sendak

Max – Max Records
Mom – Catherine Keener
Boyfriend – Mark Ruffalo
KW – Lauren Ambrose
Douglas – Chris Cooper
Carol – James Gandolfini
Judith – Catherine O’Hara
Ira – Forest Whitaker

CLR [rating:4.5]

Still: Where the Wild Things Are

The Birth of a Classic

Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book is simple, concise, and utterly unforgettable. Its language, spare and short (the book is ten sentences), has been memorized by millions of children who scrutinized it again and again, who begged for just one more recitation. “Let the wild rumpus start!” has become the archetype of chaotic, youthful glee for generations. The pictures—brilliantly colored trees replacing a child’s canopy bedposts, grass sprouting upon the carpeted floor, cavorting monsters with golden eyes and long sharp claws—have provoked the imagination for nearly fifty years. Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are may enjoy nearly that kind of longevity. With Sendak’s wholehearted approval, Jonze created a film that lovingly expands upon the original material and manages to craft an entirely new medium in which the imagination can run free.

Where the Wild Things Are delves deeply into the head of a nine-year-old boy, and the most comforting aspect of the film is that somewhere inside, we’re all nine years old. In the opening of the film, Max builds an igloo out of the leftover plowed snow across the street. Even in a frozen suburban landscape, Jonze manages to inject utter love and comfort into the tunneled structure. It’s exactly what every child yearns to create and hardly ever succeeds. When Max’s teenage sister’s friends destroy his masterpiece in an attempt at play, his despair is palpable. Poor Max yearns for attention, from his sister who’s too concerned with teenage social status, and from his busy, stressed out mother (Catherine Keener). When they don’t live up to his expectations, he retreats into a fantasy world.

In Sendak’s book, Max gets sent to bed without dinner after his unseen mother calls him a wild thing. In the film, Max throws a tantrum when his mother’s too busy with her boyfriend to pay attention to him. He runs out the door with the mother in hot pursuit and she loses him. Her concern and worry are a lovely touch, a bit of emotion adults can sympathize with. In Jonze’s version, Max climbs aboard a tiny sailboat and braves a wildly tossing ocean to the island of the Wild Things. Here he meets manic depressive Carole (James Gandolfini), weary and melancholy KW (Lauren Ambrose), petulant outcast Alexander (Paul Dano), loud, obxnoxious Judith (Catherine O’Hara), and a number of other lovingly rendered creatures.

Avid readers of the book will recognize each and every one; Jonze brought Sendak’s much-beloved artwork to roaring, gnashing life. In the film industry today the go-to solution to a group of giant, imaginary monsters would normally be CGI. Jonze rebelled, spending millions of dollars building enormous, elaborate costumes. After struggling with animatronics and realizing costumed actors couldn’t support the circuitry, the director opted to add animation only to the facial expressions in post-production. This allowed the filmmakers to place the actors’ expressions on the incredibly detailed, slightly terrifying creature faces. Audiences will recognize Gandolfini in the bipolar and destructive Carole; Ambrose in KW; Dano in sarcastic Alexander. Because they superimposed the actors’ expressions upon the gigantic creatures, there’s a stark, raw realism that wouldn’t have been possible with either CGI or animatronics. The creatures’ sheer enormity is alarming—Max could be crushed and broken at any moment. The jubilation with which they scream and play and their fierce, raw emotions will touch the heart and the mind.

In order to make a ten-sentence book into a full-length feature, Jonze and his co-writer, author Dave Eggers, gave each Wild Thing a unique and vibrant personality. Max crowns himself their king and they indulge in massive destruction—deforestation, a shockingly violent dirt-clod war, and finally collapse into a sleepy dogpile. Max’s real life and his fantasy are analogous in many ways—attention to visual detail is incredible. Max’s winter hat and tee shirt bear jagged points alluding to teeth; his crown is similarly pointy. When he ends up at the bottom of a dogpile (a genuinely terrifying moment that directly parallels the preceding collapse of his igloo) instead of finding himself dark, cold, and frightened, he feels snug and loved. The Wild Things’ relationship dynamics are strange and recognizable: they form an uneasy family in need of a leader. Max seems to be acquainted with and respect Carole and KW’s strained connection; it’s never specified, but perhaps he’s injecting his parents’ failed relationship into his fantasy. Finally he realizes he’s not up to the job of “keeping all the sadness out” and journeys back to his home. The film’s last shot is unforgettable. When his mother falls asleep at the table, he studies her exhausted face, and he sees her for the first time. His fantastic journey isn’t just a retreat from reality: it’s a step into adulthood.

Jonze cast an unknown child, Max Records, in the lead role, which was the perfect decision. The director managed to coax a spot-on performance out of a nine-year old: Records shows not a hint of artifice, and gears seem to be turning in his head each moment he’s onscreen. Keener likewise imbues such warmth and exhaustion into her performance that audiences will sympathize with her single-working-mom plight. Although studios balked at the film’s maturity, believing it might be too scary for children, it will appeal to kids and adults alike. Inside all of us there’s a child who yearns to break free, and the film’s beauty lies in its ability to portray unrefined human emotion and the vastness of the imagination. Expect Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are to ignite the minds of generations to come; spending 90 minutes inside a child’s mind has never felt so cathartic and enchanting.

Where the Wild Things Are trailer

[Photo above by Matt Nettheim]

Julia Rhodes graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Communication and Culture. She's always been passionate about movies and media, and is particularly fond of horror and feminist film theory, but has a soft spot for teen romances and black comedies. She also loves animals and vegetarian cooking; who says horror geeks aren't compassionate and gentle? Google+



  1. Rochelle Norlund

    October 8, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    I do like this movie, cause Spike Jonze, Maurice Sendak, Dave Eggers, Tom Hanks, Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper and Michael Berry, Jr. all did wonderful jobs on this film.

    I do like the scenes with Carol (Gandolfini) and Max (Records), cause they both have such a very good friendship, like father like son kind-of moment. The tokens of affection that they both gave to each other is very very nice, and very sweet, cause I think they’re both reminding each other of the friendship, love, and bond that they both still had together.

    I am hoping there’s going to be a sequel to this movie, so we could all find out on what happens to Max, if he’s going to go back to the island of the Wild Things or not, and we could also find out on what happens to Carol, if he’s going to apologize to Max, for trying to eat him and for what he caused to make Max ran off, and if he wants to see Max again, and maybe let Carol be a father to Max, and Max be like a son to Carol. Bring James Gandolfini as voice of Carol, and Max Records as Max again.
    What do you think for a sequel, if there is one someday or one in the works?

    Thank you.

  2. jhaygood

    October 17, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    hi julia – a really perceptive, thoughtful review. i’m one of the editors on the movie – it’s really close to my heart. these kinds of projects don’t come along that often… it’s so satisfying to see that some people feel the same way we do about the movie – clearly some don’t as well, but that’s the way it is.

    i think there is a special connection to the film available to moms – that last shot is a gem. when my wife saw a very early version she remarked that it helped her to understand our 5 year-old boy.

    we weren’t out to frighten children (though there are frightening moments) but to maybe provide a film that would speak to some children or adults in a real (and rare) way. it’s rare because a lot of people don’t go to the movies for that! but some do, and i hope they find something meaningful in this film.

  3. Tom

    October 17, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    I am taking my 16 year old son to this movie. He told me about it, but I couldn’t recall the book that he obviously read as a child.

    But his telling me about this movie says that there is something here that is important to him. I’m glad for that!

    We will go.

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