Where the Wild Things Are puts me in an awkward situation as someone who is supposed to deliver a clear-cut opinion of a film: I didn’t love it, yet there are passages in it that are so magical I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. When a movie has that much heart, and reveals as much care and thought as this one does, the fact that it’s…
imperfect doesn’t seem to matter so much. As for its fidelity to Maurice Sendak’s wonderfully simple and imaginative book, there’s no guarantee that diehard fans will like the movie, but they certainly won’t be able to say that it doesn’t honor its source material.
Where the Wild Things Are is daring because it’s all about emotions—an intimate and profound exploration of childhood, with a remarkable child named Max Records in the leading role. (Catherine Keener is also quite moving as his mother.) Where it differs from other such films is in its metaphorical use of monstrous creatures, as originally envisioned by Sendak. These “wild things” aren’t so very different from our human hero: like children, they don’t talk about their feelings—they act out instead. They can be angry, exuberant, jealous, petulant, hurt, or blindly vindictive, and can change in the blink of an eye.
The physical presence of the wild things is another asset. Director Spike Jonze felt it was imperative that Max interact with believable costars, not animated characters. The result is a colorful cast of characters in enormous, shaggy costumes with unusually expressive faces—along with the voices and attitudes of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, and Paul Dano.
Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers co-wrote the screenplay, with Sendak’s blessing, and they’ve done a good job, framing the fantasy with heartbreakingly realistic scenes of a lonely little boy who wants his mother’s constant attention. But because they’ve focused on atmosphere and emotion instead of a conventional three-act storyline, the film doesn’t flow as seamlessly as it might and feels uneven. That’s the harshest criticism I can level at this worthy enterprise, but it is a problem, and it may leave some moviegoers wanting—unlike Sendak’s perfect little book. Still, Where the Wild Things Are is a feather in Spike Jonze’s cap, and an exceptional achievement, even if it isn’t flawless.