Spike Jonze’s 30s have been an interesting decade. Traditionally the time of settling down, having kids and all that jazz, Jonze has instead passed his time making a movie adaptation of one of the most beloved children’s books ever, Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. Notionally, it should’ve been a doddle: making a ‘kids’ film full of fuzzy, easily marketable creatures and a winning young boy protagonist.
However, things were not that easy. A combination of production rights bouncing between studios, the difficulty of finding a suitable Max and Jonze’s well-documented perfectionism meant that Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are has been a long time coming. After a decade in the pipeline, it’s finally out there, but was it worth it?
For those unfamiliar with the plot (slightly altered from Sendak’s original in the screenplay written by Jonze and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius author Dave Eggers), it follows the story of Max (Max Records), a temperamental kid feeling lonely and confused living with his mum (Catherine Keener) and teenage sister. Reduced to tears as his sister’s friends demolish his snow fort with him inside, he goes into a rage which ultimately lands him in hot water with mother. He runs away from his home to a nearby shore, where he finds a boat and sails to a strange island inhabited by the titular Wild Things, where he is elected king. But something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and Max’s bond with the creatures, especially James Gandolfini’s Carol, begins to fray…
Wild Thing Island is wonderfully realized, Jonze’s mixture of CGI, animatronics and good old-fashioned craft makes the film’s locale feel very realistic, despite the island’s geographical impossibilities (a desert borders a forest which borders a mountain range). The Wild Things themselves are a joy to behold, full of character and subtlety which an entirely CGI (or any other single medium) film would fail to achieve – full credit to Jim Henson’s Creature Shop for making some outstanding suits for the Wild Things.
But the film doesn’t just look nice, it sounds great aswell, largely due to the excellent soundtrack provided by Karen O & The Kids (she of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and the superb voice cast. Gandolfini, playing a character not dissimilar to his iconic Tony Soprano – prone to alternating bouts of rage and tenderness, surly and physically intimidating – lends Carol a mixture of charm, charisma, impatience and intolerance which make for a brilliantly rounded character. Carol is not only obviously Max’s favourite, but designed to be the audience’s as he gets most of the screentime. However, Forest Whitaker’s Ira, Lauren Ambrose’s K.W. and Chris Cooper’s Douglas all do very well with relatively slight roles.
The film, though, lives and dies on the performance on Records, who has to play an emotionally complex and turbulent boy in the midst of physical and mental maturation despite never having had any acting experience prior to this role. He does very well with a tough part, but occasionally his inexperience shows and the film tends to drag when he is not accompanied by one of the hugely enjoyable Wild Things.
Whilst Where The Wild Things Are is a fun film on the surface, it handles very difficult subjects – loneliness, gang mentality, romantic awkardness, the fragility of power and friendships – and does so with some skill thanks to the well-written screenplay. However, there are times when the slow pace slackens to the point of dragging and we find it hard to get a foothold on ‘the message’, beginning to wonder if there actually is one at times. Records’ Max is a character with whom we are notionally supposed to sympathise, but he’s such an odious little shit at the film’s beginning it takes a fair while to warm to him, so it is difficult to see yourself having his same concerns as we (arrogant race that we are) will probably always think “I was never as bad as he is!”
The pacing is an issue, and one feels that whilst it is nice to look around Jonze’s meticulously created habitat, we could do with a bit more character development: the ostracised Alexander is a very intriguing figure, as is the mostly silent Bull, but the opportunity to explore these characters is somewhat missed as we gaze around Wild Thing Island. The fact that the film feels very brief at 101 minutes shows that it could’ve done with more character time and less lengthy cinematography. Unlike, say, Avatar, where the visuals are the attraction, here we are meant to think about deeper poignancies but don’t get enough information to decipher it all.
All that said, this is still a good film which, despite the occasional drag, is interesting to watch and certainly an intriguing indicator of what Jonze can do.
7/10 – An enjoyable picture, but perhaps simultaneously a bit of a missed opportunity. Jonze’s direction is excellent, it’s an audio treat and it (mostly) handles tough subjects head-on. Some sloppy pacing and a lack of full development of some of the Wild Things means that it’s not all it could be, but it still marks Jonze as a possible auteur-in-training. It may not uplift you, but it certainly will affect you.