Review of Where the Wild Things Are

With the possible exception of Calvin & Hobbes, it’s hard to think of a property that would be trickier to adapt than Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The book only contains nine sentences, but it also holds a great deal of sentimental value to a great many readers, who were drawn in by Wild Things’ skeletal story and rich visuals. Capturing that carefully crafted atmosphere and stretching it to feature length seemed like a fool’s errand — at least until a pitch-perfect trailer showed up in April and had even the most skeptical folks shivering with anticipation.

Just because the trailer lived up to the book didn’t mean the movie would live up to its trailer, though. The good news? It comes pretty darn close. Just not in the ways you might expect. It’s not a burst of nostalgic bombast; it’s a thoughtful take on the confusion that comes from growing up.

The film starts off exceptionally strong. Max (newcomer Max Records) runs amok, roughhousing with his pet dog, throwing snowballs at neighbourhood kids and disrupting his mom’s (Catherine Keener) date. Jonze paces this sequence breathlessly, but he also loads it with nuance. Max isn’t just a rambunctious kid; he’s a child who’s nearing the realization that the world doesn’t revolve around him and he is understandably sad and angry because of it. That’s a lot of emotional heft to fit into the first 15 minutes of a kids’ movie, but Jonze pulls it off.

Oddly, the movie begins to slow down after Max runs away and discovers the wild things (in a break from the book, he actually runs to the woods rather than having his bedroom transform into a forest). From the moment they’re introduced, there’s a melancholy around the monsters that isn’t there in the book. They’re glorious creatures, to be sure — the decision to use actors in costumes with CGI-enhanced faces was absolutely the right choice — but they’re also sad, angry, petty and confused. They sound like adults and look like monsters, but they aren’t any more emotionally developed than children — which makes sense, given that they’re figments of Max’s imagination.

Childish doesn’t mean simple, though, and the actors who play the wild things turn in strong performances all around. That’s no surprise, given the costumes are worn by Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and James Gandolfini. With that cast, it’s clear that Jonze had no intention of making a kids’ movie — like Sendak, he’s making a piece of art about growing up, something that speaks to kids as clearly as it does to adults.

The trickiest question with a movie like Where the Wild Things Are is how appropriate it actually is for children. No doubt, it’s paced like an adult movie, without the rapid-fire jokes that usually keep kids distracted enough to stay in their seats. Still, at the preview screening, I didn’t hear any kids fussing, despite the fact that the movie started half-an-hour late. And while it has its frightening moments, the scariest to the kids around me didn’t involve any of the wild things — it was a temper tantrum by Max. It might be a challenging film for children, but only because it doesn’t talk down to them, emotionally or otherwise.

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