Written by contributing writer, Eric Edwards
Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are is a dark, engaging movie that is beautifully shot and composed. This is by no means a kid’s movie, however, and parents wishing to attend with children under the age of 11 will want to think twice because nightmares are sure to follow.
The opening minutes, shot with a handheld camera, has Max (newcomer Max Records) tearing through the house after a dog. Max is dressed in a homemade beast-like costume and alternately growls and howls at the terrified dog. At first, this scene had me laughing, but then I became increasingly aware of the disturbingly feral behavior the boy was exhibiting. This isn’t good-natured, rambunctious fun on Max’s part; he really looks like he might eat the dog when he catches it and throws it to the ground. The moment is so intense I expected the next scene to have Max in bed restraints at a hospital.
Instead, we next see Max playing alone outside, putting the finishing touches on a snow fort/igloo. His older sister, Claire (Pepita Emmerichs), refuses to come out and play with him and soon a snowball fight ensues, resulting in Max’s fort being destroyed and the boy left crying. Later, an argument with his mom (Catherine Keener) triggers a tantrum that makes him run away from home.
When Max finally reaches the faraway land of alter-ego monsters like Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the levity provided by the beast and his cohorts is very welcome. Once Max is elected King, the long-awaited Wild Rumpus begins. They run, jump, howl and throw dirt balls at each other. Then the realities of their fears and emotional hurts get the best of them and Max realizes that maybe his home life isn’t as bad as it seemed.
In a featurette on IMDb (click here to view), Jonze said he “wanted to make [the movie] dangerous…something that doesn’t talk down to kids or it wasn’t worth doing.” He is to be commended for accomplishing his goals, perhaps a little too well. There are many moments I found disturbing; I imagine they would terrify a small child.
Records is extremely photogenic, but not enough of an actor to sustain the film on his own. Thankfully, the supporting cast is strong enough to keep the film afloat, with Gandolfini being the standout. His voice is perfect for the growly beast, Carol, having a nasal quality that sounds like it could’ve come from the monster’s snout.
Shot in a burnt forest in Australia, cinematographer Lance Acord adds depth and shading to gnarled trees and acres of sand dunes to create an otherworldly playground for the imagination. The creatures of Maurice Sendak’s book are brought to the screen with a gentle deftness by art director Sonny Gerasimowicz, who got the job by submitting drawings of big, sleepy bears to Jonze (as revealed in a Q & A after the screening with Jonze, Gerasimowicz, Acord and several others from the creative team). Jonze made a wise selection because Gerasimowicz imbued the faces of the beasts with really strong emotional depth. In fact, they steal scene after scene from the photogenic Records. Then again, it’s all about the Wild Things.
(For two children’s perspectives on the movie, read these reviews from my junior reporters, Aline and Mena Dolinh, ages 11 and 8.)