I, like many others here at Carroll College, used to enjoy having Where The Wild Things Are read to me when I was a kid. I liked how Max, the main character, went off on his “private boat” into adventure and wild rumpus-causing, but mostly I loved the rich drawings and beautiful art style. Now, here comes a movie that captures the best elements of the book to create an enjoyable, if not perfect, journey.
“Wild Things” is not a direct adaptation of the book, but then again, how on earth could it be? The original children’s book by Maurice Sendak was about nine sentences and 48 pages long, most of them filled with Sendak’s wonderful Caldicott-winning illustrations. Instead, it harnesses the imagery of the book to create a lush, imaginative world.
This book got quite a bit of play back in the day.
Spike Jonze, whose previous credits include 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” and a whole slew of mid-90’s music videos from bands like Weezer and Fatboy Slim, directs the film with an even-handed patience rarely seen in movies today. Rather than cut between shots like a rapid-fire PowerPoint presentation, he takes his time and lets his characters develop and live onscreen.
Where “Wild Things” is most impressive is its art direction. The environments where the movie takes place are grand in scope and breathtaking to look at. From expansive deserts to a grove of falling cherry blossoms, the screen is constantly filled with gorgeous sights.
The whole film is an absolute treat to just sit back and watch.
The actual Wild Things themselves are probably the most impressive pieces of work. Made from a combination of computers and live-action puppets (think Yoda, but much bigger), the titular Things are a sight to behold. They move, breathe, live, and become real to the viewer in ways I didn’t think were possible for enormous Muppets.
The Things all have distinct names, personalities, and voices. Overall, each Thing feels well-characterized and fleshed out, from the sleepy but good-natured Ira (Forest Whitaker), to the excitable but badly-tempered Carol (James Gandolfini), and the neurotic and overeager Alexander (Paul Dano). There is also Judith (Catherine O’Hara), who, while giving a good performance, acts as a “downer” for most of the movie (side note: I’m sure there’s a market out there who finds this sort of thing charming, but I thought it came off as annoying and forced).
Each Wild Thing is unique, different, and about as real as Max is.
Which leads to one of my criticisms about the movie: its overall somberness and sad tone. Granted, this is a fresh change of pace from many other movies involving children, which over-romanticize childhood rambunctiousness without remembering the frustrations that come with actually being a kid.
"Wild Things", on the other hand, remembers what it’s like to feel like no one understands you, or when a game stops being fun because someone doesn’t want to play anymore. Too well, in fact. For every moment of joy and exuberance this movie musters, it has two moments where Max or the Things are unhappy or moody about something. Kids deal with being sad and unhappy all the time, but the difference is that kids are generally able to move past it instead of dwelling about what happened the way this movie does.
For all of the wonder and splendor going on, these guys sure can take the mickey out of it.
Another complaint I will offer this movie is the pacing. When I first heard Wild Things was being adapted into a movie, my first thought was that there wasn’t enough content to spread out over 90 minutes of movie. The movie doesn’t overstay its welcome, but near the midpoint it slows to a crawl and seems to trudge along until it’s time for Max to go home.
Still, there is some fun to be had. A dirt clod fight between Max and the Wild Things provides an exhilarating moment that reminded me of my childhood activities (I grew up in a neighborhood that was still in-development, and dirt clod fights were a summer staple), and I particularly enjoyed some of the early scenes between Max and his single mom (Catherine Keener).
Occasionally the movie takes timeout to have some fun. The film is at its best during these stretches.
Overall, I’m still recommending this movie, if only because of how visually rich and original it feels. It’s not the feel-good movie of this fall, but it has a lot of positive things to share with viewers. Here is a movie that invites you to discuss it with your friends, if you’re into that sort of thing.