Despite what it says at the local Blockbuster, "Kids" and "Family" are not genres. I suppose there's nothing inherently wrong with separating movies for kids from movies for grown-ups, but it's important to remember that within those divisions, the same genres still exist. This knowledge is key to understanding Where the Wild Things Are, director Spike Jonze's adaptation of the award-winning children's book by Maurice Sendak: If The Goonies is kids' adventure, Flight of the Navigator is kids' sci-fi and Gremlins is kids' horror, then Where the Wild Things Are is the rarest of all, a genuine kids' drama, and it is a stunning one at that.
Being a kid is generally referred to by adults as "simpler times", but just because you don't have responsibilities doesn't mean everything is easy or handed to kids on a silver platter. The other day, I drove past a grade-school kid who was walking home from school, and it struck me as a fairly mature thing to have to do. He chose his own route, knew when and where to cross the street, knew enough to not get lost, and might even have a key to let himself in when he arrived home. He was all by himself, and I wondered what he was thinking about. Wild Things knows that kids are always thinking. Max (Max Records) listens to a teacher go on a tangent about how the sun will die someday and crash into the Earth, and the thought just keeps rolling around in his head, worrying him slightly. Later, he tells Carol, one of the Wild Things (voiced by James Gandolfini), looking for a second opinion. "That can't be true," Carol replies. "You're the king and I'm big. Why do we have to worry about something so tiny?" What a perfectly reassuring answer.
Where the Wild Things Are was originally planned for a 2008 release, but test screenings and rumors that the film was too scary for children led to a delay lasting an entire year. Now that the movie is here, people have been going on and on about whether or not the film will actually be entertaining for kids. I think this is ridiculous; I feel the movie is aimed at anyone at least the same age as Max, and people are just assuming the film is for the same all-ages audience as the book. Undoubtedly, not everyone will embrace it; Jonze doesn't simplify his movie just because its intended audience is around ten years old, and I'm sure lots of them won't have the patience. My perspective, though, is that kids love the implied risk of seeing something that seems like it's intended for older audiences. Some of my most vivid memories of movies are catching glimpses of R-rated films on television or the "scary" moments in movies like Ghostbusters, and I think any complaints are going to come from parents with their own ideas about what their kids should see rather than the kids themselves.
The adaptation of Sendak's story by Jonze and writer Dave Eggers is one of the film's greatest accomplishments. Most writers would look at the extremely short source story (Wikipedia says it's only 14 sentences long) and add beats between those laid out in the book, but Jonze and Eggers mostly zoom into the broad beats the book already has, expanding on things within them rather than artificially creating scenes the way films like The Grinch and Horton Hears a Who do. Something about the way the pair has worked it all together just feels right, and memories of Sendak's words flashed though my head as I watched the movie.
The same familiarity is true of the visuals. In another movie I might have been a little irked by the color-drained palette, but it genuinely makes Lance Acord's cinematography feel like one of Sendak's illustrations come to life. On several DVDs, I've seen virtual set tours that I've mostly ignored, but here is a movie I'd actually like to walk through, admiring the realistic yet surreal world Jonze and production designer K.K. Barrett have created. One of the film's most wonderful sights is a giant model that Carol has built in a cave; you almost wish you could see the entire film acted out with the tiny carved miniatures inside of it.
I've only seen Where the Wild Things Are once, and I have little to say about the story or the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking, because I'm far more interested in the range of thoughts from my life, things I thought I'd forgotten about, which flew through my head as I was watching the movie. I can say that Max Records, Catherine Keener and the whole voice cast all give just the right kind of knowing, gentle performances that are perfect for Jonze's intended tone, and that it's one of the best films I've seen this year. It may not surpass Up as a broadly-appealing crowd-pleaser (Pixar's specialty), but it will make you think about a time when you were like Max, and perhaps you'll wish that you had your own boat to climb into, to sail to a place where you're the king, and your friends are big.
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