Film Review: Where The Wild Things Are

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(Where The Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze, USA & Germany, 2009, 101 mins)

[Warning: There are some detailed descriptions of the characters and minor mention of the ending]

This adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s picture book portrays the vivid but traumatic imagination of a young boy called Max (Max Records) who runs away from home after an argument with his mother (Katherine Keener) to an island of strange and emotional creatures who make him their king. Unlike the book, where Max is sent to bed without dinner and lets his imagination run wild in his room, cinematographer Lance Acord has made worthwhile use of the landscape, conveying vast sand dunes as though they are Max’s endless inventions; the use of light emphasising the variety of terrains, from woodland to dried rock and the open sea. The theme of the sun is also important, as Max learns in school that one day the sun will die, which becomes a significant aspect of the creatures’ lifestyle as they rely on the sun to play, bond and explore.

Where The Wild Things Are embraces a familiar subject for the entire audience – childhood. We’ve all had one, and it is a reminder that we’ve all been young and possibly are still young at heart. This isn’t a film for children, despite its adaptation its themes tread much deeper; at points it is shocking, distressing and almost heart-breaking. There is rarely laughter, which will be a surprise for parents expectant of a mischievous family flick, and though the scene where Max has a snow ball fight with his sister and her friends may appear playful, it soon takes a claustrophobic turn for the worst, as a point-of-view shot plunges the audience into darkness as Max’s own igloo falls in on him.

Records depicts his emotions brilliantly as young Max; a mixture of anger, guilt, reliability and anxiousness within an adventurous childhood, that through the use of these unusual creatures almost become psychologically thrilling for the audience. As the film progresses it is noticeable that these woodland beasts are more than just his friends, they also represent his personality. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) illustrates wonderfully Max’s anger, and his ability to become infuriated when things don’t go his way, the two friends clashing as they both strive to take order of the group. Judith (voiced by Catherine O’Hara) connotes his depression and jealousy, and even asks “How does it work around here? Are we all the same or are some of us better than others or – ? You like to play favourites, huh, king?” His new friends feed on happiness and rely on Max to provide them with worthwhile experiences to comfort their self-esteem issues, and have to be provided with plenty of attention. Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano) shows this as he bounds through tree trunks yearning to be noticed, and this characteristic of Max can be witnessed a lot of at the beginning of the film, while KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), who more than likely represents his love for his mother and sister, despite finding it difficult to express, comforts Max in the sensitive scenes. These “monsters” (for a children’s film that is what they would appear to be regardless of their furry exterior) never appear artificial; they merely sink into the location as though there is no CGI sustaining the aesthetics of the film. The pace of the film varies; it races through the trees as fast as the characters run, but will then slow to a stop, just as a young boy’s energy would in real life.

The soundtrack, produced by Karen O, is energetic and playful, a combination of singing, acoustic guitars and clapping. It stresses the tension of particular scenes and in others the distance between the characters as they struggle to co-operate with each other, particularly through the songs “Worried Shoes” and “Lost Fur”. It also contributes to Max’s isolation, not just in the imaginary world but also in reality. The characters begin soft spoken, and sometimes Max can barely be heard over the soundtrack, but things heat up as conflicts arise and Max gradually learns how it feels to be confronted, to have responsibility and how to appreciate relationships. There is no real antagonist in the film, only Max who must defeat his own demons and gain control of his youth. There is no dramatic ending which may leave some viewers feeling melancholy, but there are subtle morals; if you can remember what it felt like to fall over and enjoy it, to build an unbelievable sanctuary, to run to the limits of an extraordinary world, then you will be purely reminiscing. Let the wild rumpus begin.

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