— by JASON EAKEN —
“Where the Wild Things Are” is like a sneak attack on the idea of a Hollywood blockbuster. From behind enemy lines. It is unconventional, unique, messy and decidedly itself. Its director’s two previous films were strange, independent comedies and he hasn’t made a movie since 2002. It is based on a short children’s book by Maurice Sendak that is devoid of any thick mythology or epic battle sequences between good and evil. It’s about a 9-year-old beginning to figure himself out. That filmmaker Spike Jonze got the money to make the movie — and make it his way — is like a beacon of hope in the night for the ship of cinema, which many see as a bloated vessel lost in a sea of special effects.
This movie has special effects too, and it uses them really well. Better than most movies. But it isn’t about them. I don’t know why I mentioned them. Forget it. The movie follows Max, the 9-year-old. After a frustrating couple winter days, he gets angry, bites his mother and runs away into the night. Finding a ship, he commandeers it and winds up on an island where he discovers a group of large, talking creatures deep in the forest. He becomes their king so they won’t eat him. Like you do. They talk, they build a fort, they jump around and have wars. Of course Max will have to go home at some point, that’s inevitable.
This is not a safe movie. Why would it be? Fun is rarely safe, and this is an exceedingly fun movie. When Max arrives at the island, his ship is thrown about in waves, water angles up and slashes down on him. He has to fight not to crash into rocks. He has to scale a cliff to get off the beach. He looks down. You should never look down. Trees slam into the ground all around him, snowballs and dirt clods fly at him and hit him. He is thrown through the air. He falls down a lot. These moments are seen with perilous clarity; close-ups and head-to-toe shots that recognize Max as in the middle of the chaos, not safe from it.
Some have questioned if this movie — the situations it finds Max in, the monsters, the sadness — is too much for kids to handle. It’s true. The monsters have issues. They talk about loneliness. They experience loss. Their relationships are complex, particularly between Carol and KW (voiced beautifully by James Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose, respectively). Carol destroys things. He gets mad. The monsters feel hurt. Parents rightly want to protect their children. I think, though, they’re more fearful about their children’s reactions to the movie than the kids will be to the movie’s difficult moments. Spike Jonze has made a melancholy movie that deals with these feelings in a powerful way, yes; but it is a way that kids can identify with. It does not overwhelm the film, but it is a part of the film.
The movie is not a downer, though. It isn’t depressing. Spike Jonze and cinematographer Lance Accord have cultivated one of the most invigorating visual sensibilities in movies today. Rarely static or smooth, the camera is active and explorative. So many movies cut too quick to see anything, here we get to see all the fun stuff. Monsters jump and throw things, they leap through the air and dog-pile and you see it. The imagination is right there on screen.
Let’s talk about Max, played by Max Records. From the opening frame of the movie, I completely connected with his character. His spirit is infectious. The joy he takes playing in the snow, getting hit in the face with snowballs. I love his recklessness, his imagination. When he is hurt, when he is defiant, when he is happy, when he has discovered something about himself, when he cheers up his mother, when he has seen something new and amazing and his eyes light up. This is a great performance. He is a force.
All the creatures are attributes of Max’s life, but they are not simple representations. Max can see a version of his family life in the dynamics of this new family, and because he is the king, he is confronted with things he might usually run away from. The film’s success depends on Max’s relationship with these Wild Things, particularly Carol. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers created this relationship just right. Carol and Max are kindred spirits, they spend much time together. It is this relationship that provides Max insights about himself, and their final moment is crushingly beautiful.
I am a runner. There is a freedom to it, it is energizing. In the movies, people never run right. They move too slow. Max does all kinds of running in “Where the Wild Things Are.” He runs with his whole heart, throwing himself into the motion. He runs and runs and runs and I dare the camera to just try to keeps up, like a parent scrambling after their toddler. You see these parents sometimes. They’re frustrated, embarrassed. But the kid has seen something interesting and must get closer. Getting to that new thing is their new life goal. And if it is dangerous, all the better. This movie is alive.
Jason Eaken is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EAKEN.