By Carla Coimbra
Where the Wild Things Are explores the psychological processing and mastering of childhood rage and loss. The whimsically mad-capped Spike Jonze captures Maurice Sendak’s ten line story, and gracefully expands it into a visually compelling multidimensional odyssey.
The film begins with childish scribblings superimposed over the opening credits, a gesture that affectionately foreshadows the subversive tenderness that permeates throughout. Here Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers adapt Sendak’s monsters by allowing the creatures to take on new meaning: the creatures talk, misbehave, and are implicated in complex alliances and discords. The monsters violently lash out at each other, reenact painful real-life exchanges from Max’s home life, and of course engage in wild rumpuses. The monsters are part CGI, part carefully-crafted suits, and all parts depth of presence. It’s clear that Jonze’s adaptation sees Max’s encounter with the wild things as a foray into the underbelly of the splintered family. The monsters are internal as well as external manifestations of fear, guilt, shame, and finally forgiveness.
The visuals are sprawling and parallel the psychological unfolding across the recognizable landscapes of childhood: we hide in secret forts, walk across windblown deserts, sail on seas listlessly in and out of days, and trapeze in dark forests thick with underbrush. The film’s only lapse is in Karen O’s percussions and cutesy choir harmonies; the pulsing cacophony leaves one yearning for more depth of expression to match the epic visuals. Voiced by Lauren Ambrose, James Gandolfini, Cris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker and Paul Dano, the monsters are expressive and speak to the audience from an arm’s length familiarity. Catherine Keener’s portrayal of Max’s mother sobers the film’s fancifulness thoughtfully, aptly curbing the potential for melodrama in the crucial final moments of the film.