The biggest crime perpetuated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Peter Travers of Rolling Stone prefers “Farts and Biases” and I tend to agree) this year is ignoring Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Today, you have the opportunity to partially correct that mistake by going out and renting or buying the film yourself and seeing what great work he has done.
Jonze had the audacity to adapt a 12-page, mostly illustrated children’s novel to the silver screen. Guess what? He succeeded admirably.
Wild Things is a beautifully told vision of childhood. The fears, anxieties, tribulations and joys told through the eyes of a young boy named Max (portrayed by terrific child actor Max Records) are all brought to vivid, beautiful light in this film.
The home life Max has, while not terrible, is one where he must rely solely on imagination to entertain himself. A working class mom and a sister who’s too cool show him minimal attention. It’s when the mom (played by the reliably great Catherine Keener) snaps at him that he flees to a world of beauty and terror, discovering the wild things.
In his new found paradise, unlike his home, Max is king. His subjects? Nine foot tall monsters. When we first see them, they are destroying huts with gusto and rage. It may sound like an impossible situation to govern, but Max manages to convince them he is their new king.
The monsters are voiced by the likes of James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose, and a slew of other Hollywood renegades. They are acted out with such ferocious feeling that I would consider it to be some of the best voice work I’ve ever heard in a movie. That, combined with the fact that Mr. Jonze used nine foot tall puppets rather than computer generated monsters, makes it seem all the more real.
Whether you read this film as a dream sequence in which all of the monsters represent part of Max’s inner turmoil or as some sort of literal fantasy world that he escapes to, one thing you can’t deny is the exquisite imagery and haunting messages in the film.
Jonze has made a children’s movie that doesn’t talk down to children like so much Dreamworks fluff. By acknowledging the trials and tribulations of childhood, he’s found something honest and uplifting. I view the film as the yin to Pan’s Labryinth’s yang.
That 2006 film by Guillermo del Toro shows horror through the eyes of a child, who then retreats into an equally disturbing fantasy world. The similarity between the two is that the children somehow find hope. That is what Jonze is saying with his film, and the Oscar voters are stupid for thinking it was just child’s play.
2009 was a terrific year for not only science fiction and fantasy, but also children’s movies. Whether it’s the sci-fi/fantasy trappings of District 9 or the stop-motion magic of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Spike Jonze’s film was the best of both for the year. This film may not say exactly where those wild things are, but your DVD player is a good place to start looking.