Spike Jonze’s visual retelling of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are chronicles the story of Max (Max Records), a young boy who feels abandoned by his mother (Catherine Keener) and his sister (Pepita Emmerichs). He runs away to a world of his own, which is inhabited by large creatures, which sport large sharp chompers, and even bigger social restraints — ranging from anxiety to fear and anger. But they welcome Max, who promises to be a king that can solve all of their problems.
For Jonze, it only took a few moments with the freshman actor, Max Records, an Australian-born, son-of-a-photographer who had never starred in a film beforehand, to separate the boy from the thousands that had already auditioned (which included Griffin Armstorff, Jackson Pace, and Bobby Coleman). Fortunately, Records is a competent actor, expressing decent emotional range (though it is understandable considering that he is still a boy — tackling his first role, in a major motion picture no less), and the commendable ability for keeping his native accent at bay. However, his age is especially marring to Where the Wild Things Are; it single-handedly transforms Max from a misguided youth to maladjusted demon, and thus impacts the film’s standing as a profound adventure into a youngster’s subconscious. He bites, destroys property, and runs around maniacally, in other words, he throws tantrums. It is a completely understandable aspect of maturation, though Edgar and Jonze’s oversaturated script is chock full of superfluous plot points, meant to both compensate for Record’s older age, and to forcefully turn these natural adolescent responses into overcomplicated and ultimately inorganic coping-mechanisms. That being said, Sendak’s original storybook featured a younger protagonist and Wild Things that were based on his aunts and uncles — family members that he, as a child, considered fearsome for their unfamiliarity — this set up a natural tone that led to a more effective message which was made all the more relevant because it specifically catered to the book’s target audience.
But it is reported that Maurice Sendak contacted Jonze personally, an odd move that was formally explained to have been because he “had not been able to find anyone fitting to take it on.” A film adaptation of this children’s picture book has been in talks since the turn of the 90s, so for Sendak to be so anxious about the project, while persisting to stay away from the actual development, means only one thing: Money. This book was his opus and it was projected to make a killing at the box office and critically, although it received lukewarm reception from both. The reasoning behind this is explained rather simply: The tone of Where the Wild Things Are is almost paradoxical — too dark and adult for children, who probably won’t be able to interpret the film’s psychological undertones, and much too childish for most adults, who will make easy-pickings of its damning details.
Aspects like the cheap, nearly laughable voice-acting from talents such as James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Berry Jr., sound too misplaced to be taken seriously. Mixed in with their voices, which sound like they were handled by a bunch of pre-pubescent 3rd graders, is Jonze and Egger’s unpolished and at times pretentious script, which, in its own right, will make your ears bleed. And all this pain is excluding Karen Orzolek’s (who happens to be Jonze’s ex-girlfriend and lead-singer of the “Yeah Yeah Yeahs”) atrocity of a score.
One standout aspect of Where the Wild Things Are is its costume and set design. Though the film was originally set to be fully animated, the decision was voted against, opting to use costumes and animatronics that were developed by The Jim Henson Company. This was Jonze’s wisest moves. The costumes are suitably gritty and the landscapes are just the right brand of earthy, adding a rough, yet enjoyable feel to the film. The use of special effects in order to add realistic facial movements within the monsters was also appreciated.
Although diehards of the film will surely defend it claiming that it is a true Freudian trip that can be enjoyed endlessly, for the most part Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is a pseudo art-house picture that flails around for the majority of its running time — mostly due to a lack of genuine fun. This is an unfortunate fate for the director’s most ambitious film.