Imagine embracing the task of taking just about everyone’s favorite children’s book and transforming it from hand drawn pictures and ten sentences of dialogue into a feature film. You can go ahead and take that the book is always better than the movie cliché and multiply it by 1000 when you’re talking about something countless parents have read as a bedtime story and the deep, personal impression it left on so many of us as children. So before this movie even began shooting Spike Jonze had to know he was never going to get it just right for everybody – or really anybody, because a movie will never match your own imagination no matter how close to the mark it gets.
Coming off a pair of wildly original films that were both critical and commercial winners and a series of successful side projects, Spike Jonze could have done just about anything he wanted to with an enormous amount of freedom and funding to do it. He chose to enter into an almost decade-long collaborative process with author and notorious curmudgeon Maurice Sendak to bring this story to life. Gaining Sendak’s discerning stamp of approval was a victory in itself and something that many thought might never happen. Jonze used the book’s universal appeal and his own draw as a director to put together an ensemble of extraordinary talent to help him fulfill his vision. Novelist Dave Eggers co-wrote the script (and a novelization of the movie). Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman Karen O and her own indie rock all-star team did the soundtrack. The Arcade Fire lent their most dramatic song for the trailer (a work of art all by itself). Tom Hanks signed on as a producer. James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose and Catherine O’Hara agreed to voice the monsters. But the success of the film ultimately hinged on an unknown child actor coincidentally named Max Records. Jonze has said several times that he wasn’t trying to make a children’s movie but rather create a film that captures a 9 year old’s unique point of view. Max’s innocent surprise, dramatic mood swings, revealing first impressions and in-the-moment wonderment all helped him to achieve just this.
Spike himself has often been accused of being a grown-up kid, and perhaps it’s that perspective along with his boundless imagination that allowed him, like James Cameron with Avatar, to create a world unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. His use of performers in costume, animatronics and CGI technology brought his monsters to life with an unusual emotional clarity. As a viewer in the theater, Wild Things took me back not only to the imaginary planets you dream up as a child but also to films like Star Wars that transported you to a place far beyond what you ever dreamed possible. Lance Acord’s stunning photography is both beautiful and perfectly engaged with the film’s action at all times, keeping you slightly off balance as Max explores his new kingdom. The chemistry between the voice actors is due in large part to Jonze’s insistence that they live, rehearse and record together in the same room. Gandolfini in particular was an unlikely and inspired casting choice. He brings a unique dimension to Carol that can be both childlike and menacing, and his interactions with Max are the cornerstone of the film.
Spike, like Max, is the self-appointed King of this world, and while there are moments of raw, youthful exuberance, this is not just another children’s movie — it’s a movie about childhood. As such, it treats its subject with a rare level of respect and understanding while still being told simply enough for kids to be able to enjoy and follow its story. The film is a fantasy rich in psycho-analytic potential, as what we’ve seen of Max’s real world becomes mirrored in his life amongst the wild things much as our dream world and waking life blend and blur as children. But Spike seems much more concerned with the impressions of childhood than examining their roots, as evidenced by the scenes both chaotic and tender with Max’s mother, played with dependable excellence by Catherine Keener, that explore the universal themes of escape and return – here magnified to include boat trips across a vast ocean. In truth, what kid hasn’t considered running away from home or learned to forgive a seemingly inattentive parent?
I’ve read and heard complaints that the film was too long, too dark or simply not what people wanted or expected. All of those criticisms have some validity; however, this film for me was able to very accurately capture the often treacherous emotional landscape of a child with all of its confusion, mystery and complexity. It was also able to stay true to the source material while becoming something entirely its own. In terms of pure balls and imagination, it stands on a scale far beyond almost anything else that I saw this year