WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Max Records, Catherine
Keener, Mark Ruffalo
Voices: Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker
Director: Spike Jonze
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 101 Minutes
Release Date: March 2, 2010
“Hey, king, what’s your first order of business?”
“LET THE WILD RUMPUS START!”
Of all the stories I grew up on, Where the Wild Things Are was always the one I cherished the most. As a child who was more responsive to illustrations more than words, opening up that book and gazing upon the world that author Maurice Sendak created was very much the equivalent of an adventure. It captivated me in a way that was matched by very few other books.
So having treasured the book, and being a lover of film, the idea of a big screen adaptation is one of those things that always ended up conflicting me. One the one hand, the film version has the chance of being just as magical as the book was if put into the right hands, but on the other hand, it’s one of the shortest stories in existence and made of very few words. How could any filmmaker be able to expand on such a beloved, but limited source?
As fate would have it, visionary director Spike Jonze found just such a way. He and co-writer Dave Eggers have constructed such a marvelously breathtaking and fully realized interpretation. It represents the best of both worlds, with the spirit of Sendak’s book combined with that of truly magical cinema.
The film has divided audiences, though, and it’s easy to see why. Given the source material, people were expecting a traditional family film. That’s definitely what didn’t get made here.
The project may have experienced the longest period of development of any film in the past 20+ years. And I don’t doubt for a second that Jonze, a true perfectionist, and the studio experienced some creative differences. But in the end, Jonze (who said himself, “I didn't set out to make a children's movie. I set out to make a movie about childhood”) got to make the film he envisioned and film lovers all around should be grateful that such a film exists in this day and age.
Jonze and screenwriter Eggers have expanded beyond Sendak’s 9 sentenced, 48 page book to tell an enriching tale about childhood in its purest form. All of the numerous themes that were hinted at in the book are exactly what have translated to the screen. The result is the most unconventional family film to ever exist, and for me it couldn’t have arrived at a more perfect time in my life.
The focus of the story is young Max (Max Records), a boy whose imagination is, forgive the pun, truly wild. When we see that he’s the child of a recently divorced mother (Catherine Keener), we realize why he spends so much time in his own fantasy land. But a heated fight with his mother forces Max to run away from home and proceed to literally escape into his own imagination.
We see him sailing a stormy sea in a tiny boat, which then lands at a mysterious island inhabited by the hairy “Wild Things”. Max presents himself to the creatures by interrupting a feud between them. Before long, he is chosen to be king of the clan.
What must first be mentioned about this film is the look of the Wild Things themselves, which is bound to make anyone realize how long it’s been since the work of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop graced the screen. It was a genius choice on the part of Spike Jonze to go with this look for the creatures, which look more haunting and awe-inspiring than any hint of CGI could bring.
And the line up of voice actors for the Wild Things couldn’t have been better selected. James Gandolfini, mostly known for his intimidating tough guy persona, is remarkable in the warm personality he brings to the character of Carol, the chief Wild Thing whose look breathtakingly resembles the original illustration from the book. We also get fantastic vocal performances from Lauren Ambrose as KW, Forest Whitaker as Ira, Catherine O’Hara as Judith, Chris Cooper as Douglas and Paul Dano as Alexander.
And as far as child actors go, Max Records gives one of the most astonishing performances I’ve ever seen from a performer of this age range. From his very first moment on screen, you absolutely buy him in the role. His commitment and enthusiasm in the performance helps tremendously in the viewer identifying with him, since we were all children at one point.
Though it’s difficult to recommend Where the Wild Things Are to families, who more than likely won’t know to make of it if conventional, warm-hearted family fare is to be expected, it does deserve to be seen by anyone who remembers being captivated by the book as a child. Spike Jonze has brought a brilliantly realized vision to the film adaptation, and the themes he explores such as childhood, loneliness, isolation and love are extremely fitting with Sendak’s original book. And the film is guaranteed to bring out the child in all who watch it.
This Blu-ray release from Warner delivers the expected visual glory once Max lands on the island. But the presentation doesn’t shy away from the low-key/non flashy approach that Jonze and his cinematographer, Lance Acord, bring to the scenes preceding Max’s escape. Those moments are shot in an intentionally murky form, which is why they may not turn up in such a grand manner even in the 1080p. But when we are taken to the island, the picture is nothing but eye-gazing wonderment. The world Max inhabits offers one glorious visual after another, all of which is breathtakingly showcased in HD. And the creatures themselves look even more astonishing. A most superb job!
The DTS HD mix brilliantly accompanies the film’s eccentric sound design. The wonderful soundtrack provided Karen O (lead singer of the rock group Yeah Yeah Yeahs) is a show-stopping highlight. And when Max and the Wild Things engage in their friendly physical war games, the surround sound quality is furious and impeccable. Dialogue delivery is handled perfectly, as is the balance between dialogue, music and sound effects.
The Blu-ray features exclusive extras, including the short film “Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life”, as well as the HBO First Look at the making of the film. Lastly, we are treated to series of “Where the Wild Things Are” Shorts by Lance Bangs, which consist of the following featurettes: “Maurice and Spike”, “Max and Spike”, “The Records Family”, “Carter Burwell”, “The Absurd Difficulty of Filming a Dog Running and Barking at the Same Time”, “The Big Prank”, “Vampire Attack”, and lastly “The Kids Take Over the Picture”.
There’s also a second disc which features both the standard DVD version as well as a bonus Digital Copy.
Despite its polarizing of audiences, Spike Jonze’s visionary interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are is every bit as magical and enriching as the classic book that inspired it. Anyone who remembers being swept up by Maurice Sendak’s book as a child is bound to get the same feeling again here. It might just be the only film I’ve seen to convey to a viewer what it is to be a child, especially one like Max.