Spike Jonze’s latest directorial effort has been surrounded by much intrigue and inevitably much hype. Since his two collaborations with writer Charlie Kaufmann, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Jonze has amassed a cult following. So when word first got out that he had been chosen to adapt Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book Where the Wild Things Are excitement hit fever pitch, well at least in western film blogs and publications. Jonze’s own geeky look and indie sensibility meant to many that he would be the ideal candidate to bring the source material to the big screen. His inventive and groundbreaking work in the fields of music video and skateboard video showed him to be a playful yet progressive talent who also had crossover appeal. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, he had the approval of the book’s author Maurice Sendak who is now credited as a producer on the film.
After continuous scheduling delays Where the Wild Things Are was finally released in December. The initial excitement and hype has meanwhile turned to intrigue and debate over the merit of the final product. Delays usually mean that a studio is unhappy with a film and its commercial appeal. Had restrictions been placed on Jonze’s creativity due to the nature of the material and the film’s relatively large budget? On first impression one can’t say that they have, yet the film isn’t a complete success either.
It seems that the director has had an incredibly hard time bulking up a short children’s book. The original story concerns a young boy named Max who, upset by a quarrel with his mother and in need of attention, escapes to an imaginary world inhabited by huge animal-like beasts. They accept Max and crown him as their king. Mayhem and mischief follow as Max bonds with the creatures. Inevitably he returns home and finds that his supper is still warm and that all is forgiven.
There are notable differences between the book and the film. Most prominently Jonze has tried to flesh out the characters, particularly Max and the Wild Things who all have their own distinctive voices and personalities. Max is immediately singled out as a loner. At the start of the film he is shown building himself an igloo outside his house. After it is destroyed by his sister’s friends he takes his revenge by running amok in her room. Later he argues with his mother when he is disgruntled by the male presence in the house, what seems to be his mother’s boyfriend. He bites her hand when she tries to grab him; the ensuing tension is the catalyst for his escape. Max can come across as a spoilt child but he is also a fragile and sensitive character. His longing for acceptance is reflected by his relationship with the wild things. His specific affection for two of the wild things, namely Carol and KW, is due to his craving for maternal figures. There is one symbolic sequence in particular that emphasises Max’s fragility. In it he climbs into KW’s stomach in order to hide from a disgruntled Carol and is shown curled up in a foetal manner.
A lot more attention has also been paid to the wild things’ environment. Their world is bathed in hazy, natural light and consists of endless forests and desert. Together with the wild things Max utilizes his natural surroundings to build a fort. It consists of a large towering sphere in which he and the wild things live. A visual highlight of the film is a wonderful tracking shot from Max’s point of view as he runs toward his majestic creation. The world of the wild things also acts as a huge playground in which Max and his friends recklessly chase and play with each other. In these scenes the adventurous and simple-minded wild things resemble the crew of the television show Jackass, which Jonze co-created, as they stumble over and fling each other about.
Jonze must be commended for capturing the recklessness of youth in his set pieces. Furthermore he has drawn an incredible performance from his star the young Max Records who plays the protagonist. The voice cast which includes James Gandolfini, Paul Dano and Forest Whitaker are also excellent. Finally one must also praise the brilliant soundtrack by Karen O and the Kids which encapsulates both the melancholic tone of the film’s opening and its chaotic core. Emotionally, however, the film offers an empty conclusion. Jonze is trying to get at bigger issues of environmentalism and alienation through the script’s reference to the dying sun and the natural wildlife of the wild things world. Even the deserts outside the lush forests can be viewed as a comment on desertification. None of these themes however is fully realised and in the end the film lands somewhere between the director’s artistic sentiments, envisioned in the occasional visual flair, and its empty, frivolous narrative.