Reviewed Mar 29, 2012
Adam Cook’s review:
Film adaptations of much loved stories are fraught with danger, not least when a fanbase is quick to shout about any potential raping of childhood memories. So when it came to the screen interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are (perhaps the most loved of all children’s picture books) the stakes were extremely high. But rather than give it to a safe pair of hands the job of director fell to Spike Jonze, a director seemingly a million miles away from a multi-million dollar child friendly blockbuster. Yet, Jonze’s playful, anarchic style is exactly suited to the material and this surprising marriage has created something genuinely beautiful, bittersweet, charming and magical.
It is not a film for children but rather about them. It’s not that a young audience wouldn’t enjoy the film but it is very much for an older generation looking back at their own childhoods and the sense of wonder and frustration that seemed to continually battle inside each and every one of us. I love the fact Jonze has taken Sendak’s book and discarded everything but the basics of the story. It is a brave thing to do, and at what point of stripping away plot points does the film no longer resemble an adaptation? But this is never a question you ask yourself when watching the film. By removing pivotal scenes, such as the famous forest growing in Max's bedroom, he has freed himself from the source material whilst still being completely true to the spirit of Sendak's work, and it is that spirit that is all important here. Interestingly, if they had kept the aforementioned scene it would have removed the ever present sense of danger that worked so well in the film because it would always reinforce that it is in fact a fantasy world.
In many ways this reminded me of The Company of Wolves or Valerie and Her Week of Wonders in that they deal with the onset of adolescence by subverting aspects of our childhood. It probably shares more in common with Valerie... because both are essentially mood pieces rather than having strong coherent narratives to hold them together, but it also has a child’s logic which is entirely in keeping with the material. I can see why this film won't be liked by all but if you buy into the world that is created it is a truly wonderful experience. Whilst each of the Wild Things represents a side to Max’s personality they never come across as mere projections but as living, conflicted creatures. The film is constantly on the knife edge between fun and danger, much like most child’s play is, where a little incident can escalate into seemingly monumental problems.
This playful-danger juxtaposition is present in the creature designs too. They really are Sendak’s illustrations brought to life and whilst they are soft and cuddly the protruding claws and teeth are a constant reminder of their potential threat. The work done by the Jim Henson Workshop is staggering on this film. The physical performances, along with pitch perfect voice acting, are exceptional and really bring these monsters to life. In the age of CGI it is so refreshing to see practical effects such as these, it makes it so much more grounded and believable and allows Max (a brilliant performance by Max Records) to perform against something that isn’t a just a tennis ball on a stick. Likewise, the cinematography by Lance Acord is breathtaking in its beauty and helped create a fantasy world unlike any other committed to film.
I rarely sing the praises of studios when writing a film review but Warner Brothers must take some credit in letting Jonze complete his vision. Considering the source material and huge sums of money involved you could hardly begrudge the studio for going in a safer direction than they did. But I am incredibly pleased they did have the courage to back Jonze because these sort of big budget films are incredibly rare and should be celebrated and supported when they come along.
Where the Wild Things Are is a once in a generation film and one that manages to beautifully capture the myriad of emotions that childhood evokes.