I don’t want to know how Spike Jonze made “Where the Wild Things Are.” I’d rather simply simmer in the joy of having watched it unfold before my eyes.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is a startling achievement from a director with a clear vision and the strength to see it through. Working from – but not slavishly adapting – Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s classic, Jonze has made a movie that can’t help but create controversy because of its utter simplicity, which masks layers of complexity.
Some will see it as a movie about nothing, when in fact it is a movie about everything.
In the simplest story terms, the film doesn’t stray that far from the source material. Max (Max Records), who looks about 10 and favors his “wolf” suit – a shaggy one-sy with a tail and a hood with ears – first tangles with his mother (Catherine Keener), then flees the house and the block, hiding in a vacant lot where he finds – what?
A sailboat and an ocean. Simple as that. He boards the boat, sails for a night and a day, and winds up on an island, where he meets the Wild Things. They’re large, furry or feathered monsters, comparable to the creatures called monsters on “Sesame Street” (though perhaps a shade more ferocious). They have names like Carol, Judith, Ira and Douglas – and they’re a melancholy bunch until Max makes his appearance.
Max crowns himself king of the Wild Things, then announces, “Let the wild rumpus start!,” signaling a round of unfettered play. They romp, they quarrel, they reconcile – and then Max decides it’s time to go home. So he does. The end.
Yet within that uncluttered framework lies the entire interior life of a 10-year-old and who he will become. The Wild Things may be several times Max’s size, but they are at his level socially and psychologically, with the same fears and quirks of Max’s age group. Which makes sense: They are creatures of his imagination – and in creating a group of imaginary friends, he would want them to all have something in common.
Jonze and his cowriter, Dave Eggers, essentially create a huge, unsupervised playdate between the new kid and a group of his peers, who he quickly wins over. Inevitably, his insertion into this gathering creates certain jealousies and insecurities among the old group, who have issues of their own. Gradually, those problems come to the fore – and the group eventually sorts them out.
Whether it’s the power struggle between the largest, Carol (wonderfully voiced by James Gandolfini), and the mouthiest, Judith (a very funny Catherine O’Hara) – or the rift between Carol and would-be girlfriend KW (Lauren Ambrose) – the problems they confront seem big to them, even when they appear trivial to others. Hurt feelings are hurt feelings; learning to deal with them is part of growing up.
The Hollywood version of this film would have pitted Max against a leader of the Wild Things and led to some kind of final showdown. Max would have feared for his life at some point – these are, after all, monsters who have been known to eat people. The element of jeopardy would have been heavier, more obtrusive – and more adult. The final catharsis would have been more obvious.
But Jonze has made a career out of subverting genres and expectations, whether in “Being John Malkovich” or “Adaptation.” In this case, Jonze and Eggers have written a film that truly captures what it’s like to be a 10-year-old, in all its mood-swinging glory. This film is fueled by imagination, not driven by plot or built around structure. It’s a film about play and the sudden shifts it can take when someone gets upset or hurt or hatches an unexpected idea.
Yes, there is a larger world there, impinging on the psyche of 10-year-old Max. His teacher talks about the sun dying (and the Earth with it); his older sister has friends who are jerks (and who, at the end of a snowball fight with Max, destroy an igloo he’s worked hard to build). His mother is divorced, harried and dating.
While the film references all of these things, they are simply part of Max’s world – not the focus of it. We see them all, mostly glancingly, so we know what’s swirling around in Max’s imaginative brain, what fears and worries he harbors that affect how he views his life.
But “Where the Wild Things Are” is a movie about imagination with a small “i” and fantasy with a small “f.” Capital letters need not apply. Deeper meaning must be gleaned; it never announces itself.
I laughed, I marveled, I even choked up a little at the end. And I really liked it, enough that I want to see it again.