One guarantee about Where the Wild Things Are — whether you’re delighted with it or disappointed, you’ll be wildly surprised. At 101 minutes long, the film is a boisterous expansion of the spare10-sentence original book, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak in 1963. Quirky director Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) and literary wunderkind David Eggers have conjured a touching and surreal story about a child, but it’s nothing like any children’s film you’ve ever seen.
If you can tolerate being flummoxed for a while and let the enchantment unravel at its chosen pace, you could end up, like me, loving this movie to pieces. Or not. By all accounts, Wild Things is already considered the year’s most divisive film.
Nine-year-old Max (Max Records) is having a tough time. The monster no one mentions, named Divorce, looms over his world like a storm cloud. Teenage sister Claire doesn’t want to play with her pesky little brother any more. When her friends accidentally destroy Max’s igloo, he flies into a rage and tears up Claire’s room. Mom (Catherine Keener) helps him cope by encouraging Max’s vivid imagination, but she’s preoccupied with work woes. Worse, she’s distracted by another monster, named The Boyfriend. One night, Max, dressed in his wolf costume, throws a ferocious temper tantrum and when Mom tries to placate him, he bites her.
Horrified at himself, lonely and miserable, Max flees through the city streets to the nearby shore. A boat is waiting. He gets in and sails off across the empty sea to a remote island (shot in Australia). In a forest, he finds enormous monsters knocking down twig houses. Max gleefully joins in, proving himself a vandal equal to any brute. When the horned and snaggle-toothed creatures threaten to eat him, Max calls up the ancient defense against monsters — he stares unblinking into their eyes. Impressed, the monsters make him their king.
Max’s first command is brilliant. “Let the rumpus begin!” he yells. Everyone charges through the forest, smacking tree trunks, swinging on branches, rolling in the leaves. At night, they sleep together in a contented pile. Wouldn’t it be terrific if every day could be such primal fun?
Alas, these creatures are wild things, and like wild things the world over, they are unpredictable and dangerous. They’re self-centered and petty, they whine, they’re hypersensitive and jealous. Aren’t they like the monsters repressed within Max’s troubled psyche? Or caricatures of the adults he knows? Yes and yes. And more. Amateur psychologists — go at it and have a ball.
At 6 to 9 feet tall, the monsters (fashioned by Jim Henson’s Muppet folks) tower over Max. They are awesomely life-like, thanks to puppeteers inside the monster suits, CGI enhancement of their faces, and a superb voice-over cast. The script — witty, subtle, sometimes painfully sad — transforms Sendak’s book monsters into all-too-human creatures you can’t stop thinking about.
The leader of the pack is Carol, voiced with near-hypnotic longing by James Gandolfini. He’s a temperamental two-horned egoist, who dreams of building a town where the monsters can live together as one big happy family. Blind to his role in the monsters’ dysfunctional behavior, Carol wants King Max to banish sadness for all time.
Carol’s in love with KW, an elusive motherly redhead. Chicken-like Douglas is his loyal sidekick. Gloomy Judith pals around with Ira, who tries to get along with everybody. The voice of reason belongs to pale, goatish Alexander. Lurking just out of reach is a silent bull-like beast — is he a monster-in-waiting named Stubborn that Max will uncover in the future?
Inspired by Carol’s dream, Max orders the construction of a massive fort. But monsters don’t have enough people skills to cooperate for very long. In a misguided game of war, the group self-destructs amidst wounded limbs and hurt feelings.
Unlike adult heroes, Max accepts that he can’t fix monsters. He’s going to have to go home and outgrow them. Maybe Mom will help him do that. After all, Max now realizes, her love for him makes her the best monster-tamer ever.