Spike Jonze’s take on this children’s classic from Maurice Sendak has been dogged by rumours of re-shoots, re-cuts and rebranding since he finished shooting in 2008. Warner Bros had reportedly accused Jonze of scaring children with his dark vision, (though they claim they had actually just given him more funds to realise his vision), and fears rose that this strange hybrid film would be watered down into a family-friendly studio movie.
I’m happy to report that it is certainly not family-friendly, nor is it a sanitized studio movie. What Jonze has created is in no way a children’s film, it is, as he has said, a film about childhood. Sure, it has big fuzzy wild things, but rather than simply being an escape from Max’s everyday life they represent everything in himself that he cannot escape. His time with them is, in effect, Max confronting himself and everything that he has to cope with: selfishness, anger, depression and even global issue like climate change make an appearance.
It’s not just the issues involved that are distinctly adult either, the composition of the film does not make its story and themes easy to follow. The opening where Max’s problems and fears are set up is incredibly short. Layers of intricate detail allow cinephiles to glean what they need from the short scenes, and some excellently orchestrated set pieces between the characters, along with sensitive performance, offer up all of the emotion needed for those receptive enough. For those who aren’t, the launch into the fantasy world of the wild things will be abrupt, and matters are only made more confused soon after.
The interactions that occur in the land of the wild things are disjointed, unexplained, and apparently arbitrary. A big cuddly pile-up is followed by one-to-one chats, resentful exchange, dirt-ball fights and the construction of an enormous and intricate housing-hive of some sort. Fragmented moments offer insight into the wild things as it becomes apparent that each of them relate to an aspect of Max himself, but we are offered very little to aid us in our conclusions or even cover up the gaping holes between the fragments. In some sense this is a genius way to expound this examination of a young mind, in others it is a frustrating experience that is difficult to grasp.
The visuals make up for this confusion to some extent. The hybrid nature of the wild things themselves works beautifully, with suited men, CGI animation and animatronics blending into stunningly surreal creatures which have all of the imaginative freedom afforded by CGI but remain grounded in the real world through the living performers and their suits that form the basis of their construction. Meanwhile the worlds they inhabit, like the world Jonze builds for Max, is astounding in its scope and detail. Nothing is lost here and in those moments when you’re reeling from an inexplicable event you can easily sink into the sumptuous visuals and forget the plot for a while.
The other issue to address is the relationship between the film and the book. As a much loved story, Where the Wild Things are is bound to have some hardcore fans who will be upset with Jonze’s dark interpretation. There are two simple responses to anyone bothered by this: 1) Maurice Sendak approves of the film, (2) The book is like 10 pages long and 99% pictures, there is very little plot to deviate from because the bulk of the story lives in your imagination. If you don’t want to see how someone else imagined it, don’t watch the film. I will say, though, that fans and newbies alike will not fail to be impressed by the look of the wild things.
For those of you with no particular attachment to the book, this is a stunning film with huge amounts of insight into childhood that is worth two hours of anyone’s time. But if you want something light and fluffy, or something to take the kids to see, you’re much better off looking elsewhere.