Review: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Where the Wild Things Are is Spike Jonze’s ode to childhood. Specifically, it focuses on the confusing, mercurial, and powerful emotions that command us as children when we haven’t been forced or trained or taught to master them yet. In that sense, it is a piercingly honest film, with a reverberant beauty gracing both its visual aesthetics and narrative movements.
Before diving into the film’s potent storytelling successes, I feel a brief mention must be made about its technical achievements. The creatures in WTWTA are beautifully crafted and lushly realized. The visual effects work done to animate their faces is stellar, to say the least. Jonze’s team really brought the monsters to life with a convincing mix of physical size and dynamic expressions. It’s important to note this because since so much of the movie is centered around them — and Max’s usually very physical interactions with them — filling them in with entirely CG characters or failing to allow them to adequately express themselves would have been damning to the film. The movie wouldn’t have worked otherwise. Nailing this one aspect has gone a long way towards allowing the inherent poignancy of the film to shine through.
Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers have done a masterful job turning Maurice Sendak’s ten-sentence book into a feature length film that stays true to the spirit of the original. The book dealt chiefly with how to cope with anger and, appropriately enough, left a lot up to the imagination in its characterization of Max. Jonze and Eggers examine an entire spectrum of emotions and have fleshed Max and the Wild Things out into full and vibrant characters. They’ve also expanded the story to include a myriad of intricacies, finding organic ways to examine how emotions affect us. One of the smartest decisions they made, though, was to not actively try to provide us with answers. Rather, much like growing up, we are given experiences and made to feel the subtle pulsations of each moment. Any conclusions we come away with are our own, and for that, the film is deeply affecting.
The movie is impressive for the complexities weaved into its folds, but also dazzling in its simplicity. On the surface, it is about a boy who journeys to a strange land, spends some time with the locals, then heads home. And the Wild Things aren’t extremely complicated creatures. For the most part, they wear their hearts on their sleeves and speak what’s on their minds. They’re children. But there are also layers and layers of details that enrich the story and characters. Max’s mother’s boyfriend, the interpersonal dynamics of the Wild Things, the recurrence of specific phrases and emotional responses, the metaphors for growing up — all of these elements are ripe for further consideration and study. But all of these things that are happening at different levels aren’t force fed to us. The film is very straightforward in its storytelling, focusing its energy on crafting a tale about characters who feel powerfully and don’t know how to tame those feelings. It’s a story about anger and fear and happiness and love. The basic stuff. And because its subject is so basic, the film becomes that much more meaningful, moving in a way anyone can understand.
WTWTA works because it is about childhood. This enables it to make small moments feel terribly big, and to be sentimental in the purest form. It perfectly captures the often unexplainable ways we feel, and does it with ease. It’s brilliant in the way that it depicts something so recognizable yet still so difficult to articulate. The film is a journey through tangled emotions and unchecked exuberance, and it embodies these qualities itself. Like growing up, it is filled with ups and downs, brattiness and learning to know better, making friends and loving them, and playing and fighting and trying to make a world when the real one isn’t good enough. It’s sweet and bitter, sad and uplifting; tinged with a streak of nostalgia for a time when the big things were simple and the simple things were big. It is an outlandish yet romantic vision of childhood, and one that anyone who has ever been a child — or a wild thing — should experience.