Max in his wolfsuit (All images courtesy Warner Brothers)
Max, the young man at the center of Maurice Sendaks classic tale, gets into a snowball fight with a group of older kids. Everyone is having fun, and Max's excitement mounts to the point of mania. Then it all ends, and the shrieks of laughter turn onto howls of anger and frustration.
In seconds Max experiences the switch between the joy and powerlessness of being a kid We've all been there and it's an agony which remains with many through adulthood. In that moment Jonze captures us all.
Max is a lonely young fellow. His older sister is paying him less attention as she enters teenhood. His stressed mother is trying to keep earning a living, and even find a replacement for Max's father who is painfully absent. When Max wears his wolfsuit and throws a tantrum with the new boyfriend in the next room, something has to give. He runs away, and after a stormy sailboat ride ends up with the Wild Things.
Jonze took on a huge challenge when he signed up to do "Wild Things." He's working with what amounts to being a sacred text to many people young and old. He also faced the task of taking Maurice Sendak's handful of pages and creating a cohesive motion picture lasting an hour and a half.
Mercifully he has not only succeeded, he has added new layers to the storyline which elevate the Sendak original. The Wild Things who barely speak in the picture book emerge as fully formed characters with their own strengths and foibles. Most of the time they are low-key doofusses, who take just a little too much pleasure in petty bickering.
Many adult viewers will no doubt be reminded of some recent moment where people were behaving in much the same way.
The Wild Things are naive enough to believe Max when he tells them of his magical abilities and experience as a king, so they quickly decide to set aside their original plan to eat him, and instead give him a crown. Max sees he can use their formidable strength to fulfill some of his own dreams, including building the ultimate fort. It's only later that it dawns on him that a beast which can tear a tree out by its roots could pose quite a threat to him if he's not careful.
Spike Jonze knows it's a lesson everyone needs to learn at some point.
The film is gorgeous in the way it echoes Sendak's drawings. Max Records who plays his namesake is brilliantly believable in the wolfsuit, as are the voices behind the Wild Things including James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Catherine O'Hara, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and Forest Whitaker.
This is a film people will be watching in years to come.
I heard the "Today's Question" segment on Monday (?) about "what children's books should never be made into a movie?". Instead of being able to think of a book that is too "sacred" to me, I could only imagine the wonderful possiblities of translating all of those wonderful children's books into film. I have not seen Where the Wild Things Are yet, but I can tell from the trailers that it is magical. About 75% of the population are visual learners--why not try to reach people in many different ways? Kids come to reading from many venues--film can be one of them!