In what could be one of the biggest wild cards of the decade, director Spike Jonze brings to life a family of nearly friendly beasts in Where the Wild Things Are, an adaptation of the beloved children's book. The movie, which can only be described as an indie kid's movie made for adults by a major distributor on a blockbuster budget, was always destined to be one of two things: excellent, or an unmitigated disaster. Thankfully, Where the Wild Things Are defies expectations.
Having not read the book as a child, I knew very little about the story going into the theater, but those of you who did grow up on it know that there wasn't much to adapt in the first place. Nonetheless, Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) has taken Maurice Sendak's little book and turned it into a deep exploration of childhood growth and imagination. The result: not quite a masterpiece, but something pretty damn close.
The movie follows Max (Max Records), a 10-year old who is desperately seeking the sole attention of his single mother (Catherine Keener) and older sister. He has a tendency to throw tantrums, and after one especially over-the-top outburst, he flees his house, hops in a boat and sails to an island inhabited by a group of beasts. After convincing them that he's a king, they befriend him and start following his orders - but his fragile kingdom is threatened to be torn apart by immature overreactions.
Jonze captures the feeling of adolescent isolation perfectly and drives that theme home in the movie, creating a full-length feature out of something that really has very little in tangible plot. Max parades his new friends around, encouraging them to build a fort, get into fights and other things that don't end happily ever after, but if you were to sit down and say, "Now, what are the plot points of this movie?" you'd be resigned to, "Well, they make a lot of howling sounds, throw each other against trees, banter and... well, yeah, that's the plot." Where the Wild Things Are is a movie that runs on emotions, and Jonze plugs into that channel and takes things to an entirely different level.
The performances are excellent, primarily the one by young Mr. Records. He really nails the part, allowing us to go along with his emotional journey without judgment or bias. The voice cast is equally good, led by James Gandolfini - who knew that Tony Soprano would sound so good as a giant, hairy fur ball. Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose round out the cast.
Furthermore, Where the Wild Things Are is a visual treat. The movie looks and feels like an indie, with handheld camera effects and a real-world element rarely seen in standard Hollywood fare. Jonze has approached this as his own film, faithful to the book and yet not resigned to making something just for kids. In reality, the movie is much more for adults, both in mood and actual delivery; there are some parts that will frighten little children - I saw one family fall victim to this and leave partway through.
The visuals really round out what is indeed a complete picture. Top notch acting, a strong screenplay and excellent direction result in a moving and engaging fantasy that captures the attention. Where the Wild Things Are isn't for everyone - especially little children - but it is one of the better movies of 2009.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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