Some movies are events as well as movies. "Where the Wild Things Are" is one of those movies. The irresistibly-illustrated book (of the same title) has been a "kid's choice" favorite the world over since 1963.
"WWTA" is a tight collaboration between author, Maurice Sendak, 81, and fiercely-original, indie-experimental director, Spike Jonze, 39. The result? Definitely not Disney, but while avoiding many Hollywood tropes, Jonze has made the movie accessible to kids and adults alike. Is it a kids' movie? Nope. Jonze is clear that this is a movie ABOUT children (specifically boyhood, in my opinion) not FOR children, although he definitely wants children to see it. There has been some completely unfounded concern that the PG-rated "WWTA" may be too scary for kids. Say what?! There is NOTHING scary in this movie. Like, at all. (And I'm a bigger chicken than most four year olds.) The munchkins in my theater were giggling.
For those unfamiliar with the plot (or would that be as fantastical as an island of nine-foot monsters?), Max (the gifted Max Records) is a "wild thing" of a boy who—irate about the usual childhood travails: feeling alone, powerless and set upon by everyone--runs away from home via sailboat (in his mind in the book, in "reality" in the movie), and winds up among large furry creatures who make him their king. From the get-go, these comically-named beasts (Carol, Ira, Judith, Terry, Bob, KW) are dangerously ambivalent towards Max. There is much talk of "eating." Max's vivid imagination gets him out of one fix after another. (Stories soothe savages.) But these monsters—fickle, petty and jealous as they are—demand truth from Max. The truth about himself he hasn't been willing to look at. They ask very direct questions and expect him to deliver on his promises. The golden-crowned Max is given free reign (literally) to make all his dreams come true. But dreams aren't that easy. Relationships are complicated, and "it's hard to be a family." The whole "king" thing made me think of Israel asking for a king (instead of having God as their sole king). Monarchy is hard on imperfect subjects AND fallible kings. Subjects demand that their kings make them "happy," and kings think they can.
Main man monster, Carol, (the moon-faced, striped-belly horned monster I remembered most from the book, voiced by James Gandolfini) is closest to Max. He bounces like a bumble (cf. the abominable snow monster in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"), and has a major crush on KW, but she keeps her distance because of his unpredictable temper. Actually, it seems that Carol has the same unrealistic expectations about life that Max does, and that's why their relationship is quickly moribund. Details Max hasn't dealt with from his real life haunt him in his make-believe world: "You're out of control!"
The monsters' characters are well developed and their constant mumbling and commenting amongst themselves is a real delight of the movie. And they look exactly like the book's illustrations. The movie plot was creatively expanded from the book's meager ten sentences. Jonze (a skateboarder who may never have grown up himself) understands how children play, so, much of the movie is physical action: tromping through forests and deserts, snowball fights, dirt-clod fights, getting deliciously wet and dirty. The naturalness of the settings—real forests, real deserts, real oceans, harkens to pre-all-SPFX filmmaking, when the outdoor sun glinted in the camera and you felt you were breathing in the same air as the actors. Herculean efforts on the part of the filmmakers are required, but the payoff is worth it! Jonze's music video background is evident as the soundtrack meshes in a perfect complement to the action, without driving it or overpowering it.
"WWTA" is a great movie for kids to exercise their "moral imagination" with. What happens when Max makes and then breaks rules? Even in a game? Are there real consequences? How about when Max lies? Do "people" get hurt?
There is a non-PC honesty to "WWTA." Max barks, roars, howls and speed-runs with an unrestrained freedom seldom seen in today's tightly-orchestrated portrayals of kids. One of the best relationships in "WWTA" is between Max and his mom. She's not a stereotypical "too-busy-for-my-kids-working-single-Mom." Rather, Max selfishly wants her every minute. Like "Coraline," "WWTA" reminds us that "there's no place like home," but sometimes we're going to need to get away in order to appreciate that fact. (How about your local Cineplex?) Oh yeah, and it's great to be a kid.
--We all need a fantasy world to go to. For Christians, it's the realest dimension called "heaven."
--The very, very beginning of the movie will remind you of "Harold and the Purple Crayon."
--One of our sisters (born in 1963 like me) from Samoa had the book when she was little!
--There's been some great interviews with Sendak and Jonze in the media. Check out Newsweek's (one of the best).
--Max smiles a lot.
--Love the veiny noses on some of the monsters.
--Hilarious when Max's science teacher starts scaring students about global warming, pollution and the sun dying. What's the message here: things to be truly scared of? Or not?