Ever since Where the Wild Things Are's heartrending, perfect trailer was unveiled, expectations have been very high. Not that this full-length feature, which pulls its story straight from a beloved children's book that was a perfect and very brief 300 words, wasn't already highly anticipated.
Being directed by Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and a handful of really awesome Beastie Boys music videos) and produced by Tom Hanks and the book's author Maurice Sendak, surely reassured some. But the movie will dispel any remaining uneasy feelings -- it's a truly exceptional film that fills the book's sparseness with brilliant visual storytelling.
Reactions to Where the Wild Things Are may seem polarized right now, because it is a bit dark, weird and unsettling for anyone placing it next to the bright, pop-culture reference-filled, hyperkinetic films recently aimed at children. Wild Things doesn't restrict itself to the "family" audience, and writers Jonze and David Eggers don't Hollywood-ize the simple story of a very angry boy named Max (Max Records) who escapes to a vividly imagined place where he is "king" and can act out without consequence.
The movie expands on Max's background, giving him a work-weary single mom (Catherine Keener) and a teenage sister who doesn't have time for him. His frustrations are fleshed out as well: his snow fort is destroyed by his sister's friends as she ignores him and his mother spends her time with her new boyfriend. These scenes end with Max lashing out viciously on both occasions, his anger reeling and unrestrained. Credit goes to an incredibly natural and engaging performance by Records.
Jonze hits his cinematic stride when Max runs away into his dream world. He captures the whimsy, beauty and wildness of this place incredibly well, and shoots some stunning scenes in this dreamy and unpredictable landscape. The wild things are given backgrounds, names and problems of their own, but most of all, they're wonderfully brought to life through an ingenious combination of puppetry and CGI.
The limitless possibilities of realistic facial expressions in CGI and organic body movements through the puppetry better allows for suspension of disbelief. It also makes the creatures a real and physical presence, and ups their "wildness" and potential danger.
The movie succeeds in capturing the emotional and psychological state of nine-year-old Max. It's all very emotionally familiar and makes sense to anyone who can remember what it felt like to be an angry kid in a world you only have a tenuous understanding of. Max shares his anxieties with the wild things: that the sun will die, that you can't keep sadness out and that you can love someone so much that you can consume them. The story here is still simple, powerful and fantastically satisfying.