The thing about having a happy childhood is that no matter how well-adjusted, privileged, and otherwise positively-thinking I was as a child, I can still recall the most minor of slights from parents, siblings, and friends. It seems that Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers had the same recollections in creating “Where the Wild Things Are.” The movie isn’t so much a children’s movie as it is a movie about childhood, but its examination of childhood comes from a very adult perspective.
Centering around a little boy Max (Max Records) who flees home after a confrontation with his mother and finds himself in the land of the wild things, the movie rockets between sheer joy and bombastic visuals and a core of loneliness and anxiety that appears to underlie Max’s wordless distress.
Max is alienated by his older sister’s refusal to engage with him and upset by his mother’s unwillingness to focus solely on him instead of her new boyfriend. Complete with all the selfishness of a nine-year-old, Records’ expressive face captures the nuance of a lonely boy who lives out his desires in his imagination. When Max leaves home, he winds up on a boat, crosses a body of water, and arrives at the land where the wild things live.
Jonze was clearly having fun with this segment of the film; watching the monsters run, play, and topple trees and roughhouse with each other recalls his work as a skateboard video director early in his career. In addition, the choice to film the wild things as live action characters, played by actors in suits, rather than create them wholesale out of CGI, gives the characters a certain sense of solidity that adds to the realism of Max’s fanciful world.
Nonetheless, the visual joy of the wild rumpus quickly gives way to a plodding melancholy that isn’t unexpected from Eggers. The wild things aren’t just wild; they’re projections of Max’s insecurities and fears about his home life. There’s quite a few glancing allusions to the arguments of divorce, and lead wild thing Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is Max’s wildness writ large (and hairy).
There’s a set of interactions and relationships between the wild things that might rival the complexity of a nine-year-old’s social world, but are certainly not easily comprehended by one. There’s a niggling sense that you want to find out more of their relationships, but the movie, in perhaps its most daring choice, chooses not to satisfy that desire. Instead we see them reenacting the movie’s opening snowball fight with dirt clods, and the wild things are even more sulky and resentful than Max, their ersatz king who has promised to keep the sadness out.
In the end, Max realizes that just like all the adults he knows, he is just as powerless as all the grown-up figures in his life to prevent hurt feelings, melancholy, and exclusion. The adorable Records captures that sense of disappointment and disillusionment that comes with the realization that parents aren’t all-powerful or perfect. And when Max returns home, still in those wolf pajamas, the almost worldless scene between him and his mother (Catherine Keener) is a testament to the tolerance and love of family.
The meandering of the meat of the movie’s plot does drag a bit, but for the most part it’s delightfully resonant, and deeply emotional, though it’s most certainly not cheerful. In spite of that, “Where the Wild Things Are” is a delight worth seeing.