There will no doubt be critics and film professors who dismiss Where the Wild Things Are for it’s lack of story and structure. There will also be those who find immediate emotional attachment to this primal story of a child struggling with a world he can’t control.
Although I do have some qualms about the film mainly dealing with its length (and I thought it could use a bit more polish plot-wise), and didn’t have the emotional attachment to the story I expected, I will freely admit the film is worth a long look.
Aside from the bookends of his normal life, the entire movie takes place in a world Max (Max Records) discovers while trying to escape problems at home he can neither deal with nor articulate. In running away Max discovers a refuge on island of monsters (voiced by James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and Lauren Ambrose).
Over the course of the film we see each of the characters represent different aspects of Max. Some are obvious like Carol’s (Gandolfini) anger and appetite for destruction, and others are more subtle such as Judith’s (Ambrose) untrusting nature or the tendency of Douglas (Cooper) to be ignored.
I am a little ambivalent in how the story based loosely on Maurice Sendak’s book is presented. Early in the film Max creates a story for his mother (Catherine Keener). In many ways the entire film mirrors this typical child’s story. It rambles, turns abruptly, misses some points while over-analyzes others, and meanders it’s way towards a conclusion.
There are two possible ways to look at such a film. The first would compare it to traditional storytelling and find it wanting. The second would see how well the film captures the mind and dreams of a child and presents his perspective to the audience. And I’m not sure points can’t be made for, and against, both arguments.
In many ways the film is visceral, with rough edges lacking the clarity of a more polished script. However, it’s in these rough edges though the film finds its voice and delivers a film not only for kids, but to speak to them as well.
And I must admit I love the look of the film. Director Spike Jonze delivers a visual masterpiece giving us the dream world of a 12 year-old boy. The monsters themselves are fully-realized, and memorable, characters. I also was taken by the look of the world, especially the fort which the monsters build for Max which I could easily believe was plucked from a child’s imagination.
I wasn’t blown away by the film, nor did I feel strong emotional connection with either Max or the monsters, but I was drawn-in on an intellectual level. As I thought of the film’s I would compare Where the Wild Things Are to I came up with E.T. and The Dark Crystal. Though this film isn’t in their class it does present a remarkable world and adventure that can capture the imagination of a child.
It’s not a traditional film, and some might get bored at times (I did on a couple of occasions), but it does have something unique to offer. It may not be the instant classic I had hoped it to be, but Where the Wild Things Are does deliver a vision and perspective of childhood that is often missing in films about, and aimed towards, children.