The Book:Where the Wild Things AreBringing It To The Stage:
a kate west review dedicated to and inspired by
Sam Bronson Page (www.peacelovelunges.com)
book by Maurice Sendak
film by Spike Jonze
Max is angry. Wild. He is wildly angry, in fact. A fierce, raging little boy, Max is sadly misunderstood and runs away from home right into a fantastical world of fierce, raging monsters. Anyone familiar with Maurice Sendak's children's book "Where The Wild Things Are" knows that's pretty much it, plot-wise. First published in 1963, the book was dark and controversial and eventually turned into a world renowned classic (and winner of the Caldecott Medal). Parents worried that it promoted misbehavior, but most people knew it encouraged imaginative dreaming, a key developmental step in child-rearing. Besides, Max comes home peacefully in the end.
Now independent filmmaker Spike Jonze (Sofia Coppola's ex) has added his creative ravings to the beloved story. His deeply personal relation to the rebel boy is obvious. Fleshing out the bare bones story with Dave Eggers, he shows us an in-depth look at the famous monsters, giving them unique names, history, personalty disorders and every emotion found in the heart of a child. And his depiction of childish rage and perplexity is spot-on. A fascinating mix of live action, suitmation, animatronics and CGI, the film is dark and sad, and rather long, but does offer special illumination into the mind of a small intense boy.
Max (Max Records) rages that his sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) ignores him and that his mother (Catherine Keener) is finding love again (Mark Ruffalo). Lashing out against the unpleasantness found in life, he bites his mother and runs away into the night. In the book, he is sent to his room without supper and finds himself whisked off to a magical land in a boat. Here, Max runs down the dark streets of his neighborhood until he stumbles across a boat. The mysterious sea brings him straight to a craggy forest full of enormously cranky monsters.
Somehow he convinces them he is a king and they decide not to eat him, since they'd probably be better off with a little more royalty in their lives anyway. Carroll (James Gandolfini) is the first to befriend him, admiring their common interest in mischievous destruction and the others soon fall into line. Some are less trusting than others, most notably Judith (Catherine O'Hara), but Max is able to control them up to a point and they all find joy in playing rough and sleeping in big piles. Lauren Ambrose as KW is an especially sweet and gentle giant who helps to guide Max back down the road from anger to love. And once Max realizes that the monster world is no more free from strife than his old one, he knows it's time to move on.
Obvious great care was taken to style the non-humans into the likeness of the literary characters. They all look exactly like Sendak's delightful illustrations and Max, in his warrior wolf suit, could also be taken right out of the book's pages. Jonze created a bit of a back story to hint at the reason for Max's unhappiness. Nothing disturbing - more like normal modern life kid anxiety. Max is of an age where he will have to learn to deal with his emotions. He has a loving mother, who feeds and clothes him, but it isn't enough for him at first, until he is able to look outside himself and discover that yes, it is more than enough. He is finally ready to start growing up.
The main problem with the film itself though, is its overall melancholy tone. It is admirable to have such a rich look at the monster's lives, and oftentimes quite amusing, but overall they live a joyless existence, until Max brings some brief life back to their souls. The voice actors are all great (Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Gandolfini, etc.) and the cinematic technology and wonderful costumes allow for amazingly expressive faces, but all that does not always overcome the general weepy mood. Max does go to a pretty dark place for a while, illustrated by the interaction with the monsters, and he does survive stronger and happier than ever, but parents should be aware of the blackness at the core, and some very disturbing images to boot. Then again, no one ever said the book was a happy one either.
Still, it is a remarkable artistic achievement and definitely worth catching on the big screen. The anticipatory build up in the trailer depicts the incredible cinematography and visionary sets pretty well, but just so you know, Arcade Fire's fun "Wake Up" song is not featured in the actual movie. See it for the rebellious child in each of us. Questioning authority is not always a bad thing and sometimes it will lead you to understanding the world a little better in the end. For Max, after all that storming and raving, he was able to come back home "... where he found his supper still waiting for him and it was still hot."