Photo Credit: Warner Brothers
Chances are you have a copy of Where the Wild Things Are somewhere on your bookshelf, in your attic or packed away in storage. The iconic children's book has sold over 19 million copies since it was first published in 1963, and author Maurice Sendak's gentle-giant beasts are some of the most recognizable from the canon of kid-lit.
As with any book, bringing Where the Wild Things Are to the screen is a shaky proposition: how to recreate the story that exists primarily in a reader's mind? But with a story that has only 300 words and relies on its larger-than-life illustrations, filmmaker Spike Jonze was presented with a particular challenge.
The question in many potential moviegoers' minds: does he pull it off? And the answer, at least to this viewer, is yes. The cast of kind-monster characters are not only believable but more emotionally evocative than most of the human cast (granted the humans are outnumbered by more than two to one, but still). Part of this is owing to the handiwork of the famed muppet-makers at the Jim Henson Creature Shop, who created massive, fur-covered costumes for puppeteers to aerobically run, frolic and tussle in. Their realistic expressions are aided by post-production technology, which allows for the monsters to smile, growl, laugh and cry.
Also remarkable is how richly the voice-actors use their words to vividly convey distinct personalities for each beast. James Gandolfini (a.k.a Tony Soprano), Best in Show star Catherine O'Hara, Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose, There Will Be Blood's Paul Dano and Oscar winners Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper all contribute their stunningly expressive voices to the film.
With the help of author Dave Eggers, who collaborated with Jonze for the big-screen adaptation of the book, the Where the Wild Things Are story itself has been updated to match a more modern family structure. Max is parented by a struggling single mother with career problems and marginal success juggling caretaking responsibilities with her search for a new mate. His father is absent, save a globe in Max's bedroom, which is embossed with a gold label that reads: "For Max, Owner of This World. Love, Dad."
When Max -- a textbook embodiment of precociously troubled ADHD -- throws a violent fit in front of mom's boyfriend, he is not banished to his bedroom like he is in the original. Instead he runs away to the woods, where he falls into his Wild Things reverie.
The rest is true to the original: Max is crowned King of The Wild Things, he leads a wild rumpus, forges significant relationships with the Wild Things, and eventually returns home via a life-size replica of the triple-mast boat toy he has back home. One of the movie's strongest points is its ability to subtly convey Max's ideal family structure through his relationships with the beasts. Two of them symbolize his parents, both of whom pay Max the attention he doesn't get from his real dad. Others convey Max's own frustrations with his implicit life question: "why can't we all just get along?"
For the viewing public, though, the main question is: does the movie work for all ages? That depends. The Motion Picture Association of America rightfully gave it a PG rating. The film has some downright frightening moments, but it also has a lot of beautifully childlike moments, and more than a few funny moments. (In the screening I attended, several waves of audible laughter rippled through the theater.)
Ultimately, Where the Wild Things Are succeeds because it doesn't cater specifically to one age group or another. It doesn't pander to the kids, and then throw in a few ha-ha lines intended only for the parents in the audience, as so many fun-for-the-whole-family films do. If the kids in your family can handle some ambiguous plot lines and nuanced feelings, by all means, pile everyone into the car and travel to Where the Wild Things Are.
Will you be seeing this film with your kids this weekend? Chime in below!