Let the wild rumpus begin!

SPIKE JONZE summed up his film, Where the Wild Things Are, perhaps better than any critics could by saying “This is not a kid’s movie, it’s a movie about kids”. One gets the feeling though, Warner thought it would be the former rather than the latter. Who can blame them? After all, Where the Wild Things Are is based on the colossal runaway hit of a children’s book by the same name.

The original, penned by Maurice Sendak was about 16 pages long and at least half of that was dedicated to illustrations. So turning this into a full length feature without it feeling sparse was quite the challenge. Add the pressure put on Jonze by Warner when they realised this wasn’t exactly going to be the kid-friendly popcorn flick they thought it was going to be, this film is quite the achievement.

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, the story centres around a young tearaway named Max who escapes to a fantasy land where he engages with his inner-id and realises the grown up world isn’t going to be so scary after all, and that he has to leave his wild days behind. The great thing about the book is that kids really identified with the themes on some level, and the film does much the same thing.

In the film, Max is played by Max Records (awesome name) and he’s really the standout. He manages to more than hold his own amongst illustrious company including Forest Whitaker, Catherine Keener and Chris Cooper. He perfectly captures the inner rage of a child in a world telling him to grow up, and convinces us that the rage is only a by-product of the fear he feels. In short, it’s nuanced, and it’s a damned fine achievement.

Playing the spiritual reflection of Max is James Gandolfini, who surprises with a child-like performance. Given his background in tough guy roles, it’s absolutely astonishing and a testament to his acting chops. He mixes glee, fear, impetuousness and pathos in his voice to great effect.

I'm dying Max

It could be said though, that the acting takes a back seat in this one to the eclectic visuals Jonze and company have created.

If it were any other director, the wild things would have been CGI. But this is a man who knows the inherent beauty in puppets (see Being John Malkovich), and the wild things are instead big, furry, lumbering suits. It’s a bold move, and one that invariably that pays off. Instead of just being another CGI creation, the wild things are childlike, like they could quite possibly be the product of a child’s imagination. It’s also a welcome change for the adults, as a welcome antidote to a CGI overdose.

The scenery (filmed right here in Oz) isn’t saccharine as you may imagine from a child’s imagination, but more rustic and wild. The wild things’ homes are expertly crafted, and the whole thing looks like it’s been crafted by a child. That’s by no means a criticism. In a film about a child inventing his own world to deal with his problems, it’s great that for once that everything isn’t in technicolour but instead looks like a world invented by imagination, and crafted by materials kids actually use to create their own fortresses and mountains.  

For all its imagination, flair and creativity, Where The Wild Things Are proves to be going through its own identity crisis. The film opens in the wild and chaotic throes of a child unleashing his inner-id with a battle with the family pet, and a snowball attack. From there, Max runs away, sails to an island and meets the wild things and then...not much happens.

It suffers from an uncomfortable gear-change about half way through the movie, where the wild rumpus stops and the introspection begins. For the adults, it’s the emotional core of the film but kids will get bored very, very easily. This is also the time when the film really shines on an emotional level, as Max’s relationship with the wild things begins to mirror that of his own family. At its heart, that’s what the film is all about.

It’s a film about a kid trying to find his place in the world when the world is telling him to change, and learning why this change is needed. It’s a great experience for the adult who’s a kid at heart, a bit confusing for the kids and a film that was severely underrated.

- James McGrath


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