Where the Wild Things Are is a masterpiece. An arthouse
masterpiece about the sorrows of growing up. A sensitive, beautiful
masterpiece about the pain of being a bright, creative, lonely,
troubled child. A brilliant masterpiece about the search for love,
acceptance, stability and comfort.

Spike Jonze has made a movie that is intensely personal; for the first
time in his short (but weirdly lengthy) career, it feels like Jonze has
put himself on screen completely. Max, played by Max Records, is a
sweet, bright, loving, creative boy who is also angry and unable to
communicate his feelings and scared and very, very lonely. He’s so open
to the world that it leaves him vulnerable, and when he gets hurt he
wants to hurt back. But he’s not a bad kid; when Max has acted out he
understands what he’s done, and he feels genuinely bad about it. Raised
by a single mom with a sister who has drifted away from him, Max is on
the cusp of leaving the purest part of childhood – the part with forts
and unabashed imagination and wolf suits – behind, and he’s afraid of
the change he sees coming. He’s afraid of the change already there, of
the mother who is seeing a new man and the sister whose friends are
suddenly more grown up and casually meaner. Max is a physical kid, one
who bounds and jumps and burrows and rolls down hills. It’s pretty
likely that Max is going to get older and discover skate boards, and
punk rock. In many ways Where the Wild Things Are is the secret origin of Jackass. Or the fairy tale version.

The Jackass quality isn’t just in the character of Max; Where the Wild Things Are has the look of some of the better Jackass material,
much of which was directed by Jonze. Jonze hasn’t hidden his own style
away in adapting Maurice Sendak’s seminal (and seriously short)
children’s book for the screen, but has instead made the work his own.
He hasn’t bowed to preconceived concepts of what a kid’s movie should
look, sound or smell like and has instead made a Spike Jonze movie that
is about kids. Narratively loose and emotionally free-associative, the
film is highly impressionistic and… well, for lack of a better word,
arty. Does that make for a good kid’s movie? I don’t know, but it does
make for a damn good movie.

Sendak’s book has never held a real place in my heart, and with such a
short length I have also suspected that the people who are attached to
it are actually attached to the things that went with it for them – the
time of their life when they read the book or had it read to them, the
creative flares the illustration sent up into their imaginations. And
the reality is that Jonze, working from a screenplay by David Eggers,
hasn’t much adapted the book as he has adapted that nostalgic
experience, but tempered through the truthful vision of a grown-up. The
main elements of the story remain (how could they not, since the book
only contains a few dozen words? Cutting for time was not ever an
issue), but are enhanced and enlarged and are now seen through a new
prism, one that’s more grounded and true. Jonze doesn’t flinch from the
joy or the pain.

I’ve written four paragraphs and haven’t said a single word about the
Wild Things themselves. Max comes to the Wild Things when his situation
at home gets untenable;
having bitten his mother in a rage, Max runs away from home and, as any
child would do, gets in a boat and sails across the ocean until he
comes to a strange island, inhabited by giant, furry (and feathery)
monsters. These monsters, one part Henson man in suit creations, one
part CGI facial movement and one part excellent voice acting, are the
heart and soul of the film. Eggers and Jonze have envisioned a diverse
and believable clan of beasts and the technicians, artisans and actors
have brought them completely to life. I don’t know when it was that I
stopped looking at the Wild Things as puppets and just as characters,
but it it wasn’t long after they were introduced. We talk again and
again about CGI characters, but these amalgams feel like the real
future of created characters – physically present in the scene but
manipulated and enhanced by computer programs to nudge them to the next
level. Real objects made realer.

And made alive by the voice acting. The Wild Things are a weird,
prickly family who fight amongst each other and who are giant children
themselves. Their leader is Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini; I don’t
know if the Carol character always had a runny nose or if that was
added by CG after Gandolfini’s nasally performance, but it’s perfect,
and that small detail encapsulates the seamless magic of these
characters. Gandolfini himself is incredible in the role, playing Carol
as Max’s Wild Thing alter ego, a character who just wants his family
together and whose vulnerability causes him to lash out with violence
and anger. The bond between Carol and Max is wonderful and
heartbreaking and real, and in a more perfect world we’d all be looking
forward to Gandolfini’s Supporting Actor nomination, because he’s just
that good.

The rest of the Wild Things are excellent as well, although none get as
much time as Carol. Some of the voice cast is unexpected, especially if
you haven’t looked at a cast list before walking in; Chris Cooper and
Catherine O’Hara are special standouts while the fact that Forest
Whitaker voiced the character he voiced knocked me on my butt at the
end credits. Each of the Wild Things has a personality type, but over
the course of the film each of the monsters becomes more than just the
type. While not all of them have real arcs – Max is more changed by the
Wild Things than they are by him, in many ways – all of them stand
apart as full characters through simple action and expert voice work
and animation.

Part of Jonze’s truthful look at childhood is the way the he embraces
pain, physical and emotional. Jonze brings the full kinetic fury of
boys at play to the Wild Things, creating situations where actual
physical damage is quite likely for Max. Max recognizes this – he even
gets scared once or twice – but he doesn’t seem to really care; the
high-impact aspects of play are part of the Jackass aesthetic that Jonze has brought with him, and after watching Where the Wild Things Are you’ll
be hard pressed not to see Knoxville and friends as simply smaller
versions of the Wild Things – harmlessly harmful. That acceptance of
pain and danger is part of what makes Where the Wild Things Are stand
out in a sea of safe kid’s movies, movies where the threat of physical
harm is usually vague or looming and not ever-present. But getting hurt
is a huge part of a kid’s life – scraped knees, bloodied noses and even
a broken bone or two are the hallmarks of childhood, where you learn to
push boundaries and test limits.

Scary as the prospect of being smashed under a dogpile of monsters or
being eaten by an angry Carol is, scarier is the prospect of not
fitting in. Of not being understood. Of being alone. Of seeing your
family group fall apart. Of having change come in and take away
everything you know. Of loving so much… and not quite being loved the
same way in return. These are the pains that Jonze really embraces, and these are the pains the inform every moment of the film. Where the Wild Things Are is
filled with melancholy, and every happy moment is bittersweet because
you can be sure it will be offset by something hurtful or sad. And Max
isn’t just feeling the pain, he’s inflicting it. In a dirt clod war he
eggs on his teammates to keep pummeling a helpless and injured enemy
just because they have the upper hand and they can. At the opening of
the film Max is reduced to tears when his sister’s big friends take a
snowball fight too far and smash his snow fort; living with the Wild
Things he does the same to someone more helpless than he was. Jonze
doesn’t comment on this, he doesn’t go out of his way to draw
parallels. And he doesn’t have Max learn a lesson in a big eureka
moment of enlightenment. Max just sort of slowly grows up and comes to
understand what it is that he’s done. And to understand the pain he
feels and the fears he has.

That’s the really beautiful part of the film. As gorgeous as Lance
Acord’s cinematography is and as moving as the soundtrack, by Carter
Burwell and Karen O, is, the most beautiful aspect of Where the Wild Things Are is
seeing Max slowly come to learn things that he never articulates but
that we understand. It’s a movie that’s fundamentally sad at its core,
but also uplifting and wonderful in its belief that love and
forgiveness are more powerful than anger or recrimination. Jonze never
hammers these points home but lets the movie slowly, quietly bring us
to these points of understanding.

Remarkable at the center of this film is Max Records. He’s playing a
complicated kid in a weird situation and he does it well. Records is
able to bring the troubled Max as well as the raucous, fun Max, running
and jumping and yelling and playing with monsters. I know that this
review has erred on the side of ‘arty and thoughtful,’ but there’s
plenty of wild rumpus in this movie, and while Max the character may
not be the king of anything, Max Records is the king of boisterous
backyard fun acting.

To be honest, Where the Wild Things Are connected with me
on a deeply personal level. While I’m not a fan of reviews that are
dripping with non-pertinent personal information, the reaction I had to
the film was obviously informed by the deep, serious connection I felt
to Max. When I was in 5th grade I was a bright, creative kid who was
also angry and troubled. Just because I was smart and could write well
and had a big imagination didn’t mean I could really process the
emotions of being the child of a single mother, or the loneliness and
isolation I often felt. I lashed out, and the school principal demanded
that my mother bring me to see a child psychologist, which just made me
feel more alienated and broken. I never bit my mother, but there were
moments where that didn’t seem so unlikely. I eventually discovered
punk rock (my friends discovered the skate boards. I was never the kind
of active kid that Max is) and other Wild Things of my own, although
it’s obvious I never left some of those feelings behind. But watching
this film was in many ways like watching the untold story of my
pre-teen years, and the wave of recognition that washed over me was
powerful. This isn’t a story that usually gets told in movies – films
have a very specific set of outcasts and troubled kids, and
well-meaning angry creative fuck-ups like Max and me and Spike Jonze and probably you aren’t in that set
– and it definitely never gets told from the point of view of the kid.

Which isn’t to say that my reaction to the film is all based on seeing
parts of myself on screen. The film is a brilliant work of art, one
that will work on anyone who is open to its offbeat charms. At the very
least Where the Wild Things Are is a sumptuous visual
feast, set in the beautifully photographed geography of childhood,
where every thicket of trees is a primeval forest and every patch of
sand is an endless desert. This is a film that deserves a raft of Oscar
nominations, and surely the new ten film Best Picture category can find
room for a fairy tale of real children and real bruised psyches and
real love.

10 out of 10