Droid defines the decades best movies – #17 Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Most of us remember our childhood fondly. At least, I do. I remember the fort, fishing for yabbies, backyard cricket and exploring the world (as I knew it) on my BMX. What tends to get forgotten is the highly charged emotions, the tantrums, the neediness and the fear of abandonment. ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ is the first film I’ve seen that perfectly encapsulates what is was really like to be a 9 year old. This is not the usual garbage film about childhood told through rose-coloured glasses, ending with “And after that summer, we were never the same.” This film is about the raw emotion of being a child on the cusp of growing up.
Max (Max Records) is a lonely kid in need of attention. His sister ignores him, and his mum (Catherine Keener) has got other things on her mind. She’s a single mum juggling work, raising two kids and a boyfriend. Max acts out to get that attention. But by acting out, the attention he receives is not the type he covets. One night he gets into an argument (“I’ll eat you up!”) with his mum, they fight and he runs away into the night. He finds a boat, which he sails across the ocean to another land. Here he encounters the Wild Things, led by Carol (James Gandolfini), and anoints himself their king.
But the Wild Things are a moody bunch, and as king, Max must deal with their emotions, their violent outbursts, need for attention and hurt feelings. Max essentially becomes their parent. They look to him for guidance, relying on him to make them feel happy and safe. Max must learn to consider others.
Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze have somehow adapted Maurice Sendaks brief, but amazingly effective picture book into a complex and moving film. They have taken each theme, each idea that Sendak was illustrating and expanded it. As a result, the film feels incredibly faithful, even though it’s gone from nine sentences to 90 minutes.
The Wild Things themselves are remarkable. Brought to life using a combination of Muppet suit and CG effects, you never once question them. They inhabit space the same way Max does. Their faces especially feel both fantastic and completely real. That believability is vital to the films success. Jonze has combined the best of both special effects techniques to create living, breathing Wild Things. Without their Muppet suit physicality, they wouldn’t be so imposing. Without their CG faces, they wouldn’t be so expressive. It’s brilliant.
Watching the film a second time, I noticed many things I missed the first time round, particularly in the early scenes. Jonze layers in hints at the world of the Wild Things created by Max’s imagination, grounding many of the oddities of that world in reality. He also subtly changes the palette and uses dissolves when Max retreats into his imagination.
There were times when I was so involved in the film that I felt fear. Not fear for myself, but fear for Max. Getting thrown about in his little boat as he makes his way across the ocean, the little boy surrounded by the giant creatures intent on eating him, the dirt clod fight and the pile ons. It taps in to an ingrained protectiveness we have for children, and you quickly become concerned over Max’s well being.
Max Records is fantastic. I particularly liked the fact that he acted and behaved exactly as a nine year old would. Instead of the unnaturally composed performances by child actors like Dakota Fanning or Haley Joel Osment, which can be off-putting, his presence is unpredictable and innocent. James Gandolfini voices the Wild Thing Carol, and it’s a terrific, heartbreaking performance. The other voice actors for the Wild Things are great too, particularly Chris Cooper (“That’s my favourite arm!”) and Catherine O’Hara (“I’m a bit of a downer”). After Carol and Neytiri in ‘Avatar’, I think the Oscars are going to need to create a new category for Best Computer Generated Actor.
This is the movie that proves once and for all that Jonze is the real deal. Both ‘Being John Malkovitch’ and ‘Adaptation’ are brilliant, but I wanted to know if he could be as successful without Charlie Kaufman. He is. He’s created a film about childhood that many adults will find connection with, and one that kids will watch and recognise things, even if they’re not sure what it is.
“Oh please don’t go – We’ll eat you up – we love you so!”