Even if its pleasures outweigh its disappointments, Where the Wild Things Are is another in a series of Spike Jonze’s ambitious but flawed projects.
The Wild Things are extraordinary to look at, almost distractingly so. The filmmakers wisely opted to blend the computer-generated images with puppet-like figures courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The finished product dazzles both in wide Lawrence of Arabia-like shots of a boy and his monster crossing the desert and in close-ups in which the moon-like face of Wild Thing #1, Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) overwhelms the screen. The grandeur of these wide-shot moments don’t translate well to the small screen, but you don’t need a 30 x 70 to see the sadness in Carol’s eyes.
Yet not even coupling these enchanted images with Carter Burwell and Karen O’s beautifully understated score can make you forget entirely the holes in the storytelling. The hour on the island relies on three set pieces to move things along, which does not bode well for a strong through-line.
I can hear things coming together now, in a bit of brainstorming that borrows a few of Sendak’s “ands”: “And then they’ll frolic and then they’ll build a fort and then they’ll play a game that turns sour”. This anemic plot could be overcome if the movie maintained the rich characterization that it achieved in those opening minutes. However, when Max lands on the island, he immediately becomes its most mature inhabitant. For the most part, the Wild Things are a petty, reactive, jealous, possessive, and emotionally unstable bunch.
In short, they are children. And to be blunt about it, watching children fight gets tedious after awhile.
I see and appreciate what Jonze and Eggers are trying to do as they draw parallels between the real world and that of the island. Themes of loneliness and belonging and family are introduced in the one world and expounded upon in the other. The best example of the two worlds commenting on one another is the juxtaposition of Max surrounded by the unwelcoming ice of a crushed igloo in the real world with him sleeping in the midst of all of the Wild Things on the island, their fur creating a protective cocoon that doesn’t keep him in as much as it keeps the unpleasantness out.
However, so too, do I get confused when I draw comparisons between the two worlds, and I can’t help but think that the movie is confused, too. At times I see Carol as a proxy for Max (they both create model worlds), which makes fellow Wild Thing KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), a double for Max’s sister, with the ill-advised Bob and Terry (don’t ask) representing her friends.
Other times, though, Carol and KW seem to be providing a glimpse into the relationship that Max’s mother had with Max’s father. I find this interpretation significantly more interesting, but I can’t reconcile this reading with the other. Not that there isn’t room for multiple points of view here, I know, but I’m not completely convinced that Jonze and Eggers made a choice, which makes it hard for me to trust the movie completely.
I think this latter approach is the direction they intended, for in the end, KW expresses the love of a mother when she says to Max, “Don’t go. I’ll eat you up, I love you so”. The line is nothing less than a revelation. Jonze and Eggers steal the line from Sendak, where it appears twice, but by this point in the movie, KW is the third character to say these words.
Most impressively, they mean something different each time. Her variation seems to get closest to the heart of the movie. Previously, she had hidden Max by swallowing him and protecting him in her belly until the danger passed, so it’s perhaps no surprise that if Max’s own mother were given a crack at the line it would probably sound a lot like KW.
Of course, home as personified by Max’s room is where the movie eventually lands. There’s something about the end of the book—Max returning home to his warm dinner—that feels just right, and Jonze nails this sense of inevitability. He is aided in no small part by Keener, who embodies maternal love. I don’t know that I have the words to express her brilliance in this small role. Let’s just say that I believed every moment she was on screen. Just thinking about her in that final scene, comforted enough that she can fall asleep while her son eats. Well, those chills are back.
Hmm. I think I just talked myself into another star.
As much as I want to end this review right here, I am obliged to say a word about the special features. In this case, I can sum them up in there: “There weren’t any.” The copy of the DVD that I have is a “Combo Pack” that includes a regular DVD, a Blu-ray version, and digital copy of the movie. The digital copy is presumably so you can watch all of those scenes that didn’t translate to your television on a screen 1/100th of that size.
All of the special features are included on the Blu-ray disc, which I can’t access on account of not having a Blu-ray player. I think they are supposed to be available through your computer with the regular disc, but I tried it on an old PC and a new Mac, and it didn’t work in either case. The features look interesting enough. There’s a short movie that’s also based on a Sendak story, an HBO First Look, and other treats. I could probably track down at least some of these online, but at some point one wonders why they want to make it so hard. Unless you have a Blu-ray player, save yourself some money and stick with the regular version. Hell, I say stick with the regular on principle alone.
In any case, when you’re settling down for the main attraction and Max takes the piss out of the Warner Bros. sign at the beginning, feel free to cheer.