Hit Refresh: Where the Wild Things Are

dir. Spike Jonze

originally posted Oct 19, 2009, 7:43 AM by Sean Erickson

There's an old adage that, depending on what quote you come across, anywhere from 60% to 99% of directing is casting. In the case of Where the Wild Things Are, a story where there is but one boy who's in every scene and more often then not is the only human face around, casting indeed plays a big part in the film's success. Spike Jonze is a smart director though, and the attention he paid to finding the right voices for the diverse cast of non-humans the boys spends the majority of the time interacting with is also praiseworthy. While attention to detail has always been one of Jonze's strongest attributes, Where the Wild Things Are manages to be a creation of such ingenuity and style it goes to places that will surprise even the most devout Jonze acolyte.

I should say up front that I'm not particularly familiar with this film's source material. Going in, I knew the story was more or less about some kid who runs off to an imaginary land to become king of the monsters for a day. Aside from that it's really just those drawings, the images from Maurice Sendak's book that stick with me the most. If I'd ever read the book it would have been over 20 years ago. So what struck me immediately, what seemed like a small revelation at the time, is that this isn't a story about some 5 or 6 year old kid playing make-believe. I'm not sure what the age of the boy in the book is suppose to be, but I never thought of him as being the pre-teen the boy of the film is. In making that distinction and focusing on it, Jonze has created a wonderful window into that transitional period of life when you start to leave the teddy bears behind and the imaginary world starts to take a backseat to the real world.

The boy's name is Max (both the character and the actor) and when we first meet him, Max is building forts and longing to be acknowledged by his family, which consists of his older sister and single mom. If there's a significant fault to the film it's that these early scenes are a bit rushed and forced but there's some magic in these moments as well. Even in a 5 second look through a window as his sister ignores his plea for attention, there's a soulfulness to Max Records' performance that is remarkable. Catherine Keneer plays Max's mom and with the help of Records and Jonze she elevates the "juggling work and kids" scenes and they somehow seem fresh. And when she brings home Mark Ruffalo for diner and Max rebels and ends up biting his mom in a fit of playful anger, it's a chaotic, tense instant. Shocked that he actually hurt her, he runs away, down the street and just like that ends up in a Never Never Land of sorts. 

Max finds a small boat that looks similar to a handmade one he was playing with earlier. He hops aboard and drifts for a while before hitting rough waters that drop him off on an island. He climbs up the face of a cliff and comes across a group of wild things (no not Denise Richards and Neve Campbell -- wait, sorry, that joke got old quick didn't it?) -- furry seven-foot tall monsters with horns, claws and insecurities in the process of breaking apart their individual homes (cool looking pods intricately woven out of branches). Rather than making a transition in these scenes to sunshiny colors and eye-popping sets a la Wizard of Oz, the film instead goes green. As in dirt, earth and nature -- organic. You can almost smell the topsoil, dirty fingernails and matted hair that makes up a large part of the production design. 

From this point on, up until a small coda, we're immersed in kid logic and watching Max learn how to be king of the monsters and the pitfalls inherent with such a duty. Or rather, how Max learns how to make his monsters happy and co-exist. Where the Wild Things Are, in being so much about what it means to be 9 or 10 years old, acts out the process of growing up by trial and error. Max learns that problems can't be solved by fighting -- even pretend fighting with dirt clods, selfishness and jealousy can ruin friendships and it takes understanding, patience and forgiveness to make a family work. Big themes for a movie based on a 300 word book that was aimed at kids. There's a whiff of a psychoanalytical experiment being played out here but that scent is drowned out by the amazing sights and sounds on display and the fact that cinema very rarely or accurately puts you into the mind of a child Max's age.

Which gets at the question many have wondered, Who is this movie for? There's even been a reappraisal done on who it is that really likes the original book these days. I think you'll end up with close to the same answers on both those questions. Kids might be haunted by the film's look -- in good ways and bad as no one's seen anything quite like this film and some of the "monsters" here border on grotesque -- while the morals of the story might breeze right over their heads (hilariously, some of the morals of the story breezed right over the heads of watchdog critics who can't get over the fact that our protagonist runs away after biting his mom). Those eager to see the drawings come to life are likely those of Jonze's own generation and already fans of his earlier work and will no doubt appreciate what he's done here. Just as the book was made with a certain amount of nostalgia by Sendak and I believe that anyone with a fond memory of their bygone youthful imagination will find what Herzog would refer to as an Ecstatic Truth in Jonze's vision.

I don't recall a more profound look at the age of 8-10 than Where the Wild Things AreET comes to mind. There are some other films dealing with a child's loss of a pet - Radio Flyer dealt with using imagination to escape an abusive parent, but none dig as deep as this film does to explore what makes a ten year old mind tick and so fully bring to life the way emotions can turn on a dime. The movie celebrates this slippery mental state, embraces it a uses it to create a story full of leaps in logic and fragile characters.

We quickly learn that these monsters Max meets on the island he is dropped off on are in desperate need of a king -- someone to give them order, bond them together as a family, protect them and bring them happiness. To Max this means: building the best fort ever during the day and sleeping in a big pile at night. But in keeping all these personalities in harmony isn't easy. There's seven monsters, seven personalities, seven different aspects of Max's world. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is the fun-all-the-time monster and bonds quickly with Max as he represents the part of Max that got him into the trouble that sent him running; Judith (Catherine O'Hara) and Ira (Forest Whitaker) represent the traditional parents; Alexander (Paul Dano) is the insecure, self-conscious, meek monster; Douglas (Chris Cooper) is enabler; KW (Lauren Ambrose) is the elusive, mysteriously desirable female monster; and The Bull... well The Bull is just vaguely menacing. It doesn't take long for Max to get called out on playing favorites with Carol and jealousy, selfishness and eventually paranoia keep Max and the monsters from ever finding true harmony. But as Judith tells Max, "Happiness isn't always the best way to be happy." It's a hard pill to swallow, but Max learns that being part of his family means he isn't king and he may need to make compromises for the greater good. When you're Max's age, part of growing up means realizing that while you may be the center of your universe, you're not the center of the universe. While he spends the movie figuring out the role these different monsters play in his kingdom, he comes to realize how Max fits into the kingdom that is his family.

I mentioned that there has never been anything that's looked quite like Where the Wild Things Are and I hope other future films will take a cue from it. More often than not, this is how special effects should be used -- to enhance practical effects. These monsters have a weight and a soul to them because first and foremost there are these amazing furry suits with people walking around in them. It is still a wonder that Records gives the anchoring performance he does, but there's not a doubt in my mind he was able to do it because of those costumes. There's caked-in dirt on their fur, snot under their noses and tears in their eyes and it's a wonder to behold. I don't know how they managed it, but the special effects are used sparingly and to make the experience more realistic rather than distracting and soulless.

Very few films come out in the course of a year that make me want to jump right back into their world. But in writing this and considering all the different details, metaphors and motivations, I can't help but feel the pull to spend more time with them. There's deep waters in this film and the more you think about it the deeper it gets. For instance, there are hints of the outside world's influence on Max's world - the passage of time and weather seem to seep through at times and the two locations in his world, the woods and the desert (and the ocean) are likely clues to where Max was hiding when he acted out this fantasy. It's simply a perfect movie to get lost in and I'm eager to head back.