I wish I’d read Where the Wild Things Are as a kid. Maurice Sendak’s famous book is a beautifully constructed story about a boy who has a temper tantrum, is sent to his room without supper, and daydreams of traveling to a land of monsters where is crowned king and leads them on a wild rumpus. It is ten sentences long. Wouldn’t have taken much time to read, and admire the simple but classic imagery. Big monsters made as caricatures of Sendak’s aunts and uncles, and young boy Max in his monster costume, like a Lost Boy from Peter Pan. Spike Jonze went and made it real, and elegized it onscreen.
Is it perfect? No. The scenes in the real world work well, but can only pale in comparison to the fantasy. We meet Max as he chases his dog around the house, and lives in a lonely world of make-believe that I remember vividly from my own childhood. Max doesn’t seem to have any friends, and his sister is preoccupied with boys; he has no one to show the cool igloo he made in the snow. So he starts a snowball fight with the older boys, who join in the fun but smash his igloo, which meant a lot to him. The kids in the audience seemed confused by why Max cried when his work was smashed; my guess is that they have never made a snow fort, or even a snowman, or a house fort out of couch cushions and comforters. So they don’t know how accomplished you feel when you first make such a thing.
He tells his Mom (Catherine Keener, always good) and she gives him quick comfort; work’s followed her home, and she has a guy over for dinner, and Max feels slighted. So he puts on his grungy wolf costume and stomps around the house, and bites his mom when she tells him to stop. And when she yells, he runs away outside. It’s somewhere behind the house that he finds the boat that will take him to his fantasy land of where the wild things are. Part of me didn’t like the change to the story, but I remember “running away” as a young boy. I got as far as the used car lot and hid there, moving between the cars, hoping to hear a train come by on the nearby tracks so I could become a hobo. I didn’t think very far ahead. Like Max, my father wasn’t in the picture. And when you’re a kid, you take your anger out on whoever’s there, even the Mom who didn’t abandon you.
You could talk for hours psychoanalyzing Max and the story, but that doesn’t interest me. It’s so archetypal that you just feel it, and your first impressions are the ones you should trust most. Max travels to a land peopled by a group of childlike monsters who can punch holes in trees, eat you if you anger them, and they all sleep in a big pile when everyone’s happy. Spike Jonze films it in a documentary style, often from Max’s eye level, with the computer effects saved for the faces of the monster suits. The backgrounds look like the Planet Earth BBC series. It was thrilling to see Max and the wild things interact with an obviously real world, when we’ve been fed so much fakery.
Max first meets Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini, and they hit it off. Carol likes things the way he likes them, throws tantrums and destroys things when he doesn’t get his way, but he’s still likeable. You know, like most kids. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious, but despite WB marketing this for us old farts and hipsters, the children in the theater haven’t been this quiet since WALL-E. I was surprised. Other than some loud teenagers who left after Firecracker yelled at them in her best Angry Southern Mom voice, the kids were captivated by it. And they should be, because it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen before. Not since perhaps The Dark Crystal, and of course the Henson Company did the costumes for this one as well. But they did make some noise. A lot of them howled with Max at the end. That was awesome.
It’s fitting that one of the pioneers of magical children’s fare has colluded with one of our most visionary directors to adapt a book that seems impossible to bring to screen. Next up is Wes Andersen’s take on Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox; maybe we’ll soon see Michel Gondry adapt The Little Prince. I’d love to see that.