Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are
Published: .
Updated: .

David Swindle
Grade: A

I'm trying to remember when I stopped playing. There had to be a "last play" at some point in my life. Surely there was one day when I played with my action figures or had some imaginary scenario that I acted out with friends just for the sake of doing it. And then I never did it again.

I can't really put my finger on it, though. I think "play" just gradually evolved into other things. Instead of the childhood play acting out in the neighborhood or on the jungle gym at recess it gradually became teenage video-gaming and writing. Then it became adulthood attempts to fashion stories that I might be able to sell.

Now I don't play anymore.

In cinema we very rarely see films dedicated to exploring the kind of basic, childhood imagination. Instead we get plenty of films of adolescent fantasy (sexual longings.) And we certainly see films which can inform and nourish make-believe - but so few which actually examine the subject itself.

And the reason for that is simple: childhood play acting and imagining do not have a three-act structure. It does not lend itself to creating drama or tension. It's a feeling and an experience, not a story. To translate the experience of being an imaginative child into the medium of narrative film is a monstrous task.

But writer-director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers pull it off with their long-awaited, much-anticipated adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are. They manage to flesh out a story that's about as long as a poem into a feature-length film and all the while stay entirely true to the spirit of the source material.

Max, the unruly little boy in the wolf costume, is ably played by Max Records. Jonze and Eggers develop his background to make it appropriate for a modern setting. Max lives in a single-parent household. He has a sister but few friends and often retreats into his imagination. His mother (Catherine Keener) struggles to deal with his emotional outbursts while entertaining her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo.) When one particular temper tantrum results in a most exasperated Mom, Max runs out of the house into the wilderness. (This in place of the book's being sent to bed without any supper.)

Max stumbles into the forest and eventually discovers a boat which he boards and sails across rough oceans to an island untouched by distant parents. He's now Where the Wild Things Are.
Max encounters something of a tribe of monster creatures who live in stick huts.

Claiming special powers and a history as a king, Max soon becomes the new leader. The wild things follow his orders and play his games. Gradually a plot emerges organically from the character conflicts of the different wild things.

I had a worry growing in the pit of my stomach for the first act of the film. Once Max arrived Where the Wild Things Are it became difficult to figure out how the film was going to sustain itself. The book did not present much of the rise and fall of a traditional plot arc. What goal could there be for Max to accomplish? Who would the villain be? Where might the tension come from? We knew that the story was taking place in his imagination. What's there for audiences to fear?

And then a plot emerged very naturally. Jonze and Eggers should get special props for this. Their method is to create a group of characters with distinct personalities - the various Wild Things all have different neuroses - and then just let the plot grow from natural tensions. This is sophisticated, intelligent storytelling that deserves far more respect that simply taking a group of characters and plugging them into an A-to-B narrative.

"Where the Wild Things Are" is, without question, Jonze's most accomplished, enjoyable film. The celebrated indie filmmaker rose to prominence with his overrated 1999 effort "Being John Malkovich." He again received accolades for 2002's "Adaptation." The films shared the same problem: a script by Charlie Kaufman which was more obsessed with gimmickry than creating meaningful - heck, likable -- characters. Jonze does not have that problem with "Wild Things." Paired with celebrated memoirist Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) Jonze is able to let his visual skills loose in service of a set of heartwarming characters.

Also of particular note is the soundtrack, created by Karen O (Jonze's ex-girlfriend) of the utterly essential alt-punk group the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. O - who's often an overgrown child herself - was the perfect artist to craft the hip tunes to complement Jonze's narrative.

A note of warning: While the film may provide older children, teens, and adults with a joyous chance to return to the world of childhood imagination, actual children (3-8 year olds perhaps) should forego "Wild Things." Parents obviously know their own individual children, but be cautioned that the film can be a bit dark and scary at parts. The youngest ones should probably wait a few years - let them stick with the book.

And that's OK. The real children don't really need this film right now. The experience that it replicates is not one they're lacking - they already have it every day. And, oh, are they lucky. They won't know what they have until it's gone.