Review: “Where the Wild Things Are” (2009)

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Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

I had read an excerpt of Eggers’s “The Wild Things” in “The New Yorker” quite a while back, which left me unfortunately unimpressed. (But then novel excerpts generally have that effect on me). However, seeing the film, and by extension the story, in full, I am left now with nothing but praise for Spike Jonze and Eggers for their very imaginative and very touching adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s nine-sentence-long book. I had my reservations both about watching the film and reading Eggers’s book (a novelization based on a screenplay based on a children’s picture book, whew), because I imagined the story being something akin to what’s produced as a result of one of those inane creative writing exercises/prompts. But the end product here is way beyond something cobbled together aleatorically; this is inspired and very thoughtfully constructed stuff.

The story centers around Max, who’s just had his feelings hurt by his suddenly distant sister, Claire. She’d rather hang out with her friends than with her younger brother. This, compounded with their mom showering her attention on a beau and consequently ignoring Max, the boy takes out his aggression by suiting up as a wolf and making a mess of a night for the family. He runs away from the house (one would infer he escapes into his imagination, which is loosely set up by his telling a story to his mother earlier in the film) and sails away to the island of the Wild Things, where for his fearlessness (and as a result of a little bit/lot of embellishment), he is crowned king by the beasts. We soon see parallels between the Things and Max’s family. He is very much like Carol, who is the most hyperactive of the bunch, demolishing things in sight just like the rambunctious Max. Carol is lonely because KW (who is a stand-in for Claire and Max’s mother) has found new friends in owls Bob and Terry. Carol and Max become fast friends, which incites jealousy in the other Things; things get even worse when Max befriends KW and her two owl friends, leaving Carol to feel even more left out. This is where imagination’s freeness meets the boundaries of reality. We get a nice allegory of the politics of children’s social lives, best illuminated by a dirt clod fight gone wrong. Max realizes how things can get complicated real fast; that it’s hard to keep everything okay and balanced, to not hurt others’ feelings. He is able to see through the eyes of Claire and his mum. It’s a subtle epiphany; had this been played out as a blatant coming-of-age story, the film would have just lost its charm. Max doesn’t “mature” or “grow up” through the course of the film. Instead, just like any other eight-year-old, he learns a lesson not unlike with experiential learning activities at school. Needless to say, Max returns home to find solace again in his mother just as in Sendak’s story, but the film adds a tearful farewell between Max and the Things, a scene that really tugged at this reviewer’s heartstrings.

Such a poignant re-envisioning, or extension, of Sendak’s story. How Jonze and Eggers fleshed out the story is quite a feat to behold. So inventive (i.e. Max hiding within a Thing’s mouth), with a nice but not too obvious symmetry to it (i.e. from snowfight to dirt clod fight; from igloo out of ice to igloo out of a pile of Wild Things to an sorta igloo via the tunnel to the Things’ fort). The story is also very cleverly funny (i.e. when Max suddenly does the robot to make everything better in front of the dejected Things). Jonze and Eggers are really rock stars here.

I did feel though as if preteen Max Records came across at points as too preteen instead of eight years old, but whatever; suspended disbelief, eh? If I can believe that Wild Things exist for the duration of this film, I can definitely set aside an age discrepancy!

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