338 words hardly seems long enough source material for an entire film, but director Spike Jonze’s adaption of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 Children’s book “Where The Wild Things Are” attempts to take this diminutive bedtime classic and craft a paean to nostalgia out of what is often considered to be an unfilmable piece of writing. Whilst the tone may often be uncomfortable, Jonze is not often wide of the mark.
If the name Spike Jonze seems familiar, it’s because you’ve almost definitely seen one of his creations. After cutting his teeth directing music videos (including the Beastie Boy’s much-celebrated classic ‘Sabotage’), and co-creating, writing and directing MTV’s infamous ‘Jackass’, Jonze permeated the film industry. Jonze has been at the helm of two of celebrated cinematic curiosities – Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), both critically acclaimed for their astoundingly original ideas and execution – but whilst these two much-lauded oddities were Jonze’s directorial efforts, they were penned by the obscenely talented writer Charlie Kaufman.
Where the Wild Things are however, was co-written by Jonze and New York satirist and hipster-favourite David Eggers, and, without the influence of Kaufman, is somewhat less mired in pervasive surrealism than Jonze’s previous creations. Of course the film is set (for the most part) on an island populated by a community of monsters – ‘Wild Things’ – and this island is in the imagination of a Child, but this isn’t the same quirky, offbeat surrealism of Jonze’s previous efforts, in fact, Where the Wild Things are is a rather more melancholic affair.
The young protagonist, 9 year old Max (prodigiously talented newcomer Max Records), is distressed by his disjointed, single parent home life. Feeling overlooked and neglected in lieu of his sister’s particularly teenage involvements (cars and boys) and his Mother’s more adult preoccupations (work and dating), Max becomes jealous and lonely. As an outlet, he takes to rampaging around his house in his iconic wolf costume and venting his frustrations, escalating to the point where he bites his mother and takes off into the streets. Fleeing the ensuing row and scuttling away to hide behind bushes and thickets, Max finds himself inexplicably at a small body of water – complete with mysterious boat – and sails intrepidly onwards.
Whilst this might sound like the start of a glorious adventure, it isn’t entirely that straightforward. Whilst the initial encounter with the fantastically realized ‘Wild Things’ is powerful and exciting, it soon becomes apparent that even as the newly crowned King of The Wild Things, Max has only really ventured into his own personality. The impulsive, emotional Carol (James Gandolfini), often succumbs rapidly to fits of rage, jealousy and passion, whilst goat-headed Alexander (Paul Dano) feels neglected and inconsequential – sound familiar? This introspective metaphor isn’t particularly subtle, but it is integral to Max’s period of reflection on the island. The resulting atmosphere is odd but distinctly compelling – a difficult mix of sorrowful, arguing beasts and moments of unbridled childish excitement. Often the mood is terse and awkward, but a pervasive whimsy seems to filter through the cracks – at least in the first half of Max’s reign over the island. The film’s emotional conflict may be unpalatable for some, but often this is softened by the film’s genuinely warm heart. Even when the mood is overcast, it is inherently enjoyable to watch the shambling, utterly convincing beasts gallivanting around during their raucous, childish ‘Rumpus’.
Indeed, this visual acuity is by no means limited to the island’s beautifully grotesque inhabitants. Visually, the entire film excels itself. Whether during the anarchic ballet of the dirt-clod fight, or the intricate detail of Carol’s model city, every detail is sumptuously stylized and in keeping with an atmosphere of wonder. Aurally as well, the film is splendid, sound-tracked beautifully and often poignantly by Yeah Yeah Yeah’s front woman Karen O, who layers the film’s more emotional moments with songs simultaneously both forlorn and rambunctious. In fact, were the music not so astoundingly complementary to the film’s nature, it wouldn’t be an unreasonable suspicion to wonder whether the adult tone and the combination of Spike Jonze, David Eggers and Karen O (not to mention some extra marketing gravitas from Topshop and Urban Outfitters) was a cynical but deftly executed attempt to turn Where The Wild Thing’s are into a seminal (and, like, totally fashionable) hipster flick.
If anyone could make the archetypal fashionista-favourite though, it’d be Jonze, whose direction is justified in it’s confidence, awash with euphoric, warm lighting and smatterings of rough, exhilarating camerawork. His direction is without the nauseating child-friendly sheen of say, Narnia or Harry Potter. This undoubtedly means that some may find Where the Wild Things Are difficult to stomach – especially those expecting easy euphoric escapism. In fact, whilst phrases like ‘melancholic nostalgia’ and ‘turbulent youth’ may be the buzzwords that seize the attention of beard stroking hipsters or particularly wistful adults, there is a good chance that any younger audience members, attracted by a trailer full of giant, lovable monsters, will end up with the same feeling of lonely alienation that plagues the film’s young hero.
However, Jonze himself has stated -“I didn’t set out to make a children’s movie, I set out to make a movie about childhood,”. True to his intentions, Jonze’s adaptation is by no means a children’s film, but rather an adult indulgence in nostalgia, a yearning for the simple complications of youth – raw, honest emotion pours from every scene, troubling feelings beget guttural howls and anguished roars. Yet it is all so insistently and beautifully innocent – even when Gandolfini’s gruff Carol inflicts a wound on another ‘Wild Thing’, where there should be blood, there is sand. The imagination of a child is evocatively realized with astounding clarity, owing in part to stand-out voice work from the ‘Wild Things’ – Gandolfini, Dano, Forest Whittaker and Catherine O’Hara (amongst others) – which allows the Immaculately designed creatures to come to life.
A poignant adventure through the emotional gauntlet of childhood, Jonze’s effort may lack the child-friendly content that it’s aesthetic initially suggests and many will be put off by it’s surprisingly pensive tone, but it’s sheer emotional gravitas and gorgeously anarchic spirit make this ultimately an emotionally rewarding, powerful film. Visually stunning and often heart-rending, whilst it is apparent that children aren’t the ideal audience for Where The Wild Things Are, watch it and your inner-children will run wild.
Where The Wild Things Are is out now through Warner Bros, you can view the trailer here.