For the decades of popularity the Where the Wild Things Are book has enjoyed, its film counterpart seems to have been in the works for almost as long. When Spike Jonze came to it, I was interested. This is a man with a distinct vision who has helped shape some of the more unique films in recent memory (Being John Malkovich being first on that list), so when it came to adapting the beloved Maurice Sendak book, the film wasn't going to be without that characteristic.
Jonze and Dave Eggers (Away We Go) co-wrote the screenplay, which centers on Max (newcomer Max Records), a young boy who tries to entertainment himself with his imagination. His mother (Malkovich co-star Catherine Keener) seems to not pay as much attention to him as he would like, which in his opinion is evidenced by her inviting a boyfriend for dinner (Mark Ruffalo, in a lightning-fast cameo). Moreover, Max's teenage sister didn't defend him after her friends crushed a snow fort that he built outside. He runs away, gets on a sailboat and finds a mysterious land with curious creatures as inhabitants.
They are the Wild Things; the charismatic, friendly Carol (James Gandofini,The Sopranos), the slightly skeptical Judith (Catherine O'Hara,For Your Consideration) and Judith's boyfriend Ira (Forest Whitaker,The Last King of Scotland). There is also Carol's trusted friend Douglas (Chris Cooper,Adaptation) and Alexander, (Paul Dano,There Will Be Blood), who no one seems to listen to. Finally, there's the notable KW (Lauren Ambrose,Six Feet Under), who comes and goes in the group as she pleases, much to Carol's frustration. Max enchants the Wild Things with his imagination, and they name him their king. However, his ideas for the group, novel as they may be, start to infringe on feelings of some of the monsters and make for tension among the group.
Much of the public's negative opinion about Wild Things seems to center on the fact that it's a scarier and darker interpretation of the book, and that this derailment from what people remember of the book was off-putting to some. To paraphrase a quote from Jonze in one of the making-of featurettes, the film is less a children's movie and more a movie about childhood, with a world created and envisioned by two people who seem to have a better visual pipeline into that world (Jonze and Eggers) than many of us do.
Consider for a moment that in one scene of the film, Max is in class, being told that the sun will die, and that things like war, global warming or other factors will lead to the possible end of the planet. If you're a nine-year-old Max, how do you process something like that? What does that do, rattling around in your brain? When I was 13, my mother, who was quite the religious fanatic, told me the world was going to end. She even showed me on a calendar when it was supposed to happen. If I couldn't handle her saying that to me at 13, how does someone four years younger deal with that type of finality? Pessimism really seems to have no room in childhood and could be a little harmful for someone like Max who chooses to look at the world in wonder.
That isn't meant to imply that Max goes around for the rest of the film wearing sunglasses and black turtlenecks or becomes a nihilist, but in a later scene where he and Carol are walking, he innocuously mentions to Carol what he heard in school -- that the sun was going to die. Carol takes this news hard, perhaps worse than Max does, and mentions it several times afterward when expressing frustration at Max. I think that frustration is the voice of Jonze and Eggers. I don't think they're on a therapist's couch or anything like that, and Lord knows I'm not about to speculate on anything in anyone's childhood, but I think there may less anger and more an unconscious suggestion to enjoy the simple things in life. The film ends with Max and his mother together again, and Max's look at his mom reflects one of those "simple life" moments, with an added hope that feelings like that could happen as often as possible.
There was some curiosity about how a live-action version of the film would be handled, but Jonze managed it well. Using a mix of CG, animatronics and actors in costumes, Max's journey is told about as well as something like that can be. Records carries the film magnificently, and his childish innocence is easily relatable, whether they're nine or ninety. Jonze captures this innocence extraordinarily well, with many shots from a lower perspective (similar to how Spielberg shot E.T. back in the day) to make sure you share his point of view as much as possible. You get the good, but you also get the bad, such as when Carol loses his temper, which gets you a little on edge. Gandofini, with his previous role and experience with Tony Soprano's temperament is well-suited for his role as Carol,
Ultimately, I think Where the Wild Things Are is a perfect film to revisit repeatedly for new layers of wisdom and rumination. Remembering Jonze's statement about "childhood vs. children's movie" makes things much easier to understand while watching the movie. For two guys just about to turn 40, they use the making of this flick to ponder life as a child and remember simple enjoyments. Let the complications of life be experienced organically, and use the time you have on earth with the same youthful vigor and wide-eyed awe as when you were nine years old, because that is something worth cherishing.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner presents Where the Wild Things Are in a 2.40:1 transfer using the VC-1 encode that looks solid. There's a good deal of background depth and clarity, more than I was anticipating, and detail in the foreground is respectable. Fine detail like the Wild Things' fur and sticks in the fort is really noticeable. Blacks are sharp and consistent through the film, though there is an occasional bout of softness in the image. Warner gives you quality high definition faithful to the filmmakers' intentions.
On the other hand, the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround track is by far the most active and dynamic of Jonze features and on its own is an excellent track. Max's journey to the land of the Wild Things includes travel on the rough seas, loaded with subwoofer action and immersion that rivals similar sequences of other high-definition titles like Cast Away and The Perfect Storm. When trees are destroyed, there's a low-end punch combined with splinters falling in the satellite speakers. Dialogue doesn't waver and requires little compensation. Great stuff here.
The big extra here is the Jonze-produced short film Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life (23:30). Based on a Sendak story, the short's main characters are voiced by Whitaker and Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, and it follows Jennie, a terrier in search of experience, which she needs for a part in a stage play. It's funny and cute with some darkish overtones, and it's in high definition, with Dolby surround 5.1 to boot. The remaining material focuses on the production, starting with the "HBO First Look" featurette (13:02). Jonze covers his friendship with Sendak, and Sendak talks about the furor over the book when it was first published. Jonze (and Eggers) talk about their approach in adapting the book, while Spike talks about what he wanted to accomplish with the film. Some of his crew covers their working relationship with the director. It's a different EPK and worth viewing, perhaps to see Jonze's most in-depth discussion about ANY of his films.
Moving on, Maurice and Spike (3:15) looks at the friendship between Sendak and Jonze, using a lot of the HBO footage, while Max and Spike (6:37) examines the fun Jonze and Records had on set, along with Records' thoughts on the film after seeing it for the first time. "The Records Family" (6:45) includes interviews with Records and his father, and they talk about how he got the role, while Keener recalls auditioning with him. "Carter Burwell" (4:39) features the composer as he shares his intentions for the score, and how pool drainage hoses were used in part of it. "The Absurd Difficulty of Filming a Dog Running and Barking at the Same Time" (5:32) is just that, as Jonze tries to get a shot of this unique and difficult synchronicity. "The Big Prank" (3:23) is Jonze getting essentially "punked," while "Vampire Attack" (0:51) is a silly quick clip of Jonze attacking Records while wearing vampire teeth. "The Kids Take Over the Picture" (4:57) has the crew's children on set watching everything, and the crew discusses the value and family atmosphere added by having them on set. The featurette material is good work from longtime Jonze collaborator Lance Bangs. Note: Additionally, Warner has included a standard-definition copy of the disc (where these screenshots come from) to go with the digital copy, all on a second disc.
In the past, Spike Jonze was considered a unique director whose charms were only matched by his vision. Where the Wild Things Are proves that he's a formidable storyteller and artist. He covers youth, optimism, fun, and the loss of each adroitly. Technically the film is outstanding, and it includes quality bonuses. It's worth buying if you haven't seen the film. You'll rewatch this again and again, trust me.