With prices for cinema tickets now reaching ridiculous heights it’s not often I will treat myself to a new release unless it’s something I simply cannot wait for. Instead, I’m happy to content myself with a cheap DVD or a film on TV which may have slipped through my critical net and, believe me, there have been far too many. Whether the films featured here are recent or old I’ll still be providing my honest opinion on them and, with the benefit of hindsight in many cases, may offer a slightly different take to contemporary reviewers.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
As a writer of fantasy I love delving into other imaginary worlds whether it’s in a good book or on the big screen. I’m ashamed to admit I have never read Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) but was drawn to Spike Jonze’s film adaptation as soon as I first read about it in Empire. The idea of a child wanting to escape the real world by losing themselves in fantasy is one I’ve enjoyed most recently in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Bridge to Terabithia (2007). My hope with Where the Wild Things Are was that it would match, if not better, those recent examples.
The film follows the story of Max (Max Records), an eight year old boy who combats loneliness with an active imagination. Max’s parents are divorced, his mother (Catherine Keener) is overwhelmed with work, while his sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) is in her teens and wants to spend all her time with friends, leaving no room for Max. Wearing a wolf costume and running round the house, Max is the epitome of a ‘wild thing’ but after going too far and biting his mother he runs away from home. Finding sanctuary in nearby woodland, Max’s imagination takes over when he finds a boat and sets sail, reaching an island after a long voyage. Here Max meets a community of Wild Things, giant creatures, that proceed to try and eat him until Max tells them he is a king from overseas and harbours magical powers. In exchange for a promise that he will rid them of sadness and despair, the Wild Things make Max their king but is he able to fulfil his promise to them?
Films of this nature need good effects and in this department Where the Wild Things Are doesn’t disappoint. Combining actors in costumes with CGI the Wild Things are a small community that inhabit a lonely island where some aspects of it are beautiful while others are barren such as a desert and woodland lacking in foliage. The beauty of the film is that Max escapes into his imagination where you would expect everything to be perfect but it clearly isn’t for the Wild Things. The stand out member of the group Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is desperate to keep the community together but is destructive to both the surroundings and the other Wild Things. The other members are also plagued by issues that keep them from the harmony and happiness that Max promises to bring them. Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano) is a Wild Thing with a goat’s head who speaks frequently but has no voice in the community, constantly ignored and dismissed. K.W. (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) is at the heart of many of Carol’s tantrums due to her nature as a loner and often seeking sanctuary away from the group. The characteristics of each of the Wild Things are inherent in Max and clearly reveal how his imagination has unravelled and manifested his own traits into a troubled yet believable community. Max’s willingness to help the Wild Things be free of their pain is him subconsciously exorcising his own demons.
Considering Max Records would have had to largely carry the film alone what with acting amongst a group of people in costumes he puts in an accomplished performance as the lead. Max’s wild nature is understandable considering some of his background. Early in the film he has built an igloo and wants his sister to come and see it. When her friends arrive to pick her up, Max engages them in a snowball fight before escaping into his igloo. Claire’s friends then smash the igloo with Max still inside, leaving him temporarily trapped under the snow! One of Claire’s friends shows concern to the tearful Max that emerges but when informing Claire of this she simply shrugs her disinterest. Max takes revenge by trashing her room, in particular, a frame he made for her. Max’s relationship with his mother seems more tender and close but she is clearly a woman under pressure with work and being a single parent. The argument that causes Max to run away from home is a result of him playing up when she gives him no attention. On the one hand Max is sympathetic as a lonely boy but his wild nature and tantrums are a step too far, he simply doesn’t realise it.
Max’s rule over the Wild Things begins with an inevitable honeymoon period as the community all believe he will bring them happiness. However, some members of the group soon grow impatient and Max finds himself facing unwanted division amongst the Wild Things. His relationships with them, particularly Carol, help give Max a better understanding of his own world and perhaps shape the early phase of his maturity. Of all the Wild Things Carol is the most tragic. The image of Carol sitting alone on the beach watching the ocean is one that struck me as particularly poignant. He has good intentions but his actions often lead to more hurt and misery for the other Wild Things, particularly K.W. who Carol clearly cares for the most. Max’s attempt to unite a broken society is a great storyline but unfortunately, for me, it’s over too quickly. This is a small complaint considering the film was adapted from a very short children’s book but I wonder if Max’s struggle and time with the Wild Things could have been extended. By the end I was of the opinion I’d watched a good film but wished there had been more of it.
Where the Wild Things Are is a great achievement by Spike Jonze, working from so little material. The portrayal of the darker side of childhood with Max coupled with the lack of escapism in the land of his invention is more apt than having him in a carefree world where life is wonderful. It makes for a more rewarding journey we share with Max, with the only downside being its brevity. That niggle aside this is an excellent depiction of the problems we have to face as we leave childhood and enter maturity.
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