by Jordan Cronk Film Horizon Line

Where the Wild Things Are — Spike Jonze

October 23, 2009

Director Spike Jonze has been quoted in interviews saying that he never set out to make a children’s film, but rather “a film about childhood.” That’s shaky ground for any filmmaker, but by those (or any) standards, his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s fable “Where the Wild Things Are” is an unqualified triumph. Along with co-screenwriter Dave Eggers, Jonze has constructed a fantasy that is at once serene, haunting, and altogether awe-inspiring. His full-blooded realization of such minimalist source material is both audacious and totally seamless, transplanting small details while expounding considerably on Sendak’s vaguely ominous dreamworld. Newcomer Max Records is startlingly poised as the young dreamer, Max, whose animalistic lashing-out at his mother (played nicely by Catherine Keener) sends him out into the suburban streets, and eventually to an island full of overgrown creatures with problems eerily mirrored by that of his own family.

These early scenes with Max and his mother are carefully executed and brimming with details that become more relevant later. However, it’s not until Max sets sail for his remote island that Jonze’s storied visual sense is given full reign to re-imagine this enchanting land of forests and deserts, caverns and plains. The Wild Things themselves are an accomplishment in their own right, brought to life through a combination of live-action and CGI, the latter used explicitly for their facial expressions. The group of creatures are both arresting in visual detail and surprising for their emotional depth. They’re voiced by a top shelf selection of actors (including Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and Chris Cooper), and each is a fully realized character, with problems and insecurities and emotions that are easily identifiable for both the audience and for Max, who sees their world correlate with his own throughout the film. But it’s James Gandolfini’s lead Wild Thing Carol that leaves the most indelible mark on Max and on the film as a whole. The actor imbues Carol with a deft vulnerability that is not only uncommon for voiceover work, but rarely tapped in most live-action performances. It’s just one of many magical elements that Jonze and his team weave into 90 of the most beautifully affecting minutes you’ll see on screen all year.