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Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are

By Thomas Grieve • June 18th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Warner Bros.

Original release: October 16th, 2009
Running time: 101 minutes

Director: Spike Jonze
Writers: Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers, Maurice Sendak

Cast: Max Records, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine Keener

Where The Wild Things Are

Based on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book of the same name, Where The Wild Things Are seemed to divide opinion somewhat upon its initial release. Telling the story of a small boy named Max who flees his home and finds himself in a far away forest full of wild talking creatures, some hailed the film as a brilliant work, whilst others dismissed it as overly dark and meandering. I count myself firmly in the former camp; indeed this belongs to a personally beloved set of films that have the rare ability to physically move and affect me.

To talk about Where The Wild Things Are we must first establish that this is far less a children’s film than a meditation on childhood itself. At times downright terrifying (“I’ll eat you up!”), it’s consistently moving and evocative of a childhood that we are in danger forgetting. You know how children can go from top of the world to tears and then back again, all in the space of a few minutes? There’s no film (that I can think of) that captures this spirit of childhood this honestly.

Directed by cinematic trickster and surrealist Spike Jonze, the film’s structured to mimic the topsy-turvy hyper-emotional nature of childhood. The highs, bounding and kinetic, are staggering euphoric affairs; Max and his Wild Things run and howl and hurl themselves into a huge pile in which they sleep. The lows, confused and melancholic, are devastating.

We’re introduced to Max at home being mostly ignored by his family. His sister refuses to stand up for him when her friends destroy his igloo, his mother’s unable to bestow the necessary attention and his father’s conspicuous only in his absence. He responds as children do, with tears, lashings of precision fury and, when things get too much – by running away as fast as he can.

Coming upon a boat he sails angrily away until he reaches a strange, distant shore where wild things roam. Dressed up in a furry wolf suit, he easily bamboozles the local beasties into crowing him their king with uniquely childlike stories:

Where The Wild Things Are

I have a double re-cracker, which can get through anything in this whole universe. And that’s the end, and there’s nothing more powerful after that, ever. Period.

It’s the kind of thing uttered on playgrounds the world over and here it’s treated with the all of the seriousness with which a child imbues his make believe. The film constantly reminds us of the earnestness of child’s play, as model making becomes castle building (it’s going to be a place where only the things you want to happen, would happen.)

Jonze carefully ties the world of the Wild Things to Max’s home life. Incidents replay themselves. A backyard snowball fight becomes a dirt-clod battle that’s shot with the intensity of a war movie. Max smashes up his sister’s room early on – echoed later by Carol (an excellent Gandolfini as the most prominent creature) who demolishes a model town in a fit of anger. We’re left in no doubt that the Wild Things are projections of Max, each resembling a facet of his personal psychology. They function as a fractured, bickering collective all unmistakably the product of a child’s psyche. They fight, argue and destroy but also create, build, grow and learn.

Jonze does well to reveal the essential truths of childhood. He remembers there’s a confusion and fear in being so small and so new to the world, but also there is so much to surprise and find Where The Wild Things Arewonder in. The camera is, for the most part; placed firmly at Max’s eye level to ensure that we share his perspective, and handheld work is used to great effect; capturing the giddy, can’t-keep-still energy of youth. Jonze honed his style on skateboarding tapes and music videos and, whilst he has matured as a filmmaker, he retains a mischievousness visual flair that contributes hugely to making Where The Wild Things Are so much fun.

His decision to use real actors in physical suits for the titular beasts proves inspired. The choice adds a welcome weight to proceedings; you can sense a certain warm and fuzzy heft about the Wild Things as they hurl themselves around the frame. The suits, from the Jim Henson workshop, form the bodies of the creatures and are combined with delicate and un-obtuse CGI work for the faces. With a film industry that has developed an overdependence on CGI, it’s nice to see a blending of old and new techniques work so well.

Our conception of nostalgia today seems to have degenerated into an ironic propagation of forgotten cultural kitsch. Where The Wild Things Are is fiercely and beautifully nostalgic, but not in this modern sense of the word, it’s more bittersweet and melancholic. Jonze reminds us to put down our rose tinted spectacles; it is far more useful in our dealings with the children of today to remember that childhood is an extraordinary time of highly charged peaks and troughs, of tears and laughter.

Where The Wild Things Are

Thomas Grieve

Thomas Grieve

Tom is a Cardiff University Philosophy graduate from sunny Manchester. He favours filmmakers with edge and ambition, ones unafraid to subvert and disturb the status quo. This means directors such as David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, David Croenenberg and Terry Gilliam.

Usually found in front of a screen trying to catch up on an ever-expanding watch list he also occasionally finds time to write. He tweets once in a while too: @thomasgrieve .

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