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Review: Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Directed by: Spike Jonze | 101 minutes | , , , | Actors: , Pepita Emmerichs, , , , , , , , , , Catherine O’Hara, , , ,

“Where the Wild Things Are” has been an immensely popular children’s book for decades, especially in English-speaking countries. It only counts nine sentences, but the illustrations by quirky author Maurice Sendak speak volumes. In the book, the little boy Max experiences wonderful adventures when he ends up in a fantasy world. In the land of the Wild Things, he is crowned king, after which he gets to decide what happens. Spike Jonze, just as quirky as Sendak, has been hooked on the book from an early age. He was chosen by the writer to film “Where the Wild Things Are”. It took some doing, but in 2009 the film version could finally be canned. Jonze has made a timeless fairy tale for anyone who looks back with melancholy on the time when he could still romp through the bushes, had mud fights and climbed trees. He emphasizes the transience of youth. Because although the images will certainly evoke a smile, it is unmistakably the sobriety that predominates.

Max (Max Records) is a child of divorced parents. His mother (Catherine Keener) doesn’t always have time for him as she has a busy job and wants to spend time with her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo). His older sister barely sees him now that she has started puberty, so Max feels very lonely. In an ultimate cry for attention, he performs a hysterical act, much to the anger of his mother. Completely upset, Max flees the door into his fantasy world. In a small boat he floats to an island where the Wild Things live; gigantic creatures that live as adults but sometimes act very childish, Max soon notices. The Wild Things have complex relationships with each other. The arrival of the boy turns their world upside down. Although the initial rapprochement is a bit awkward – the Wild Things can be very aggressive – it doesn’t take long for Max to be crowned their king. These beings urgently need a leader figure, but it is doubtful whether Max is the right person for this.

With his sober, grim rendition, Jonze stays close to the intentions of author Maurice Sendak, who never intended to write a lovely fairytale full of cute, cuddly creatures. “Where the Wild Things Are” shows us the path children should take on their way to adulthood. The fantasy world of our youth must above all be cherished, but even in our early years we already encounter difficult issues. Our parents have less and less time for us, our teachers paint an increasingly gloomy picture of the future. Not so strange that a child prefers to stay young as long as possible and flee into a fantasy world. Yet it is not all as rosy there as it seems at first glance. The Wild Things are incalculable. One moment they become very emotional, not much later you feel the threat again. Because if they want, they can eat little Max in one bite, or crush it with one blow.

In addition, they all personify an aspect of Max’s personality. Leader Carol (James Gandolfini) most resembles the boy. It is therefore not surprising that they immediately attract each other strongly. Carol is lively, passionate, but also unpredictable and explosive. He likes to be the center of attention. Just like Max, he needs a lot of attention and that is why he sometimes clashes with the other Wild Things. Especially with KW (Lauren Ambrose), who is much more mature (and thus represents Max’s mother’s love), he regularly clashes. But also the other Wild Things – the misunderstood and insecure Alexander (Paul Dano), the mental Douglas (Chris Cooper), the gentle Ira (Forest Whitaker), the sarcastic Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and the sad Bull (Michael Berry Jr .) represent a certain aspect in Max’s character. With all those qualities, Max will have to continue in his adult life, so he better learn to deal with them now. The voices are filled in fantastically by the way, especially by Gandolfini, Cooper and Whitaker.

There was once talk of “Where the Wild Things Are” going to be an animated film, but Spike Jonze put a stop to that. He wanted to be able to feel and touch the Wild Things. Jonze has pulled out all the stops to achieve that. A huge budget became available to have the gigantic dolls made. The Jim Henson Creature Shop – responsible for ‘The Muppets’, among other things – was brought in to create the Wild Things and the miek of their faces was later processed via CGI. The result is impressive: although they are strange creatures, they still appear human in their own way. Besides the beautiful dolls, the locations are also breathtaking. For the recordings, they moved to the impassable plains and forests of Australia, where you can still romp and be a child. The young Max Records, previously seen in “The Brothers Bloom” (2008), comes across as very natural. It is as if not the fictional Max but he himself experiences all those adventures. However, adventures do not actually agree, because a real plot with a tension arc is in fact lacking. That is immediately the biggest point of criticism of “Where the Wild Things Are”: so do not expect a spectacular action, but a character study from a child who is at the beginning of the long road to adulthood.

Although a children’s story is the basis of “Where the Wild Things Are”, this is not exactly a children’s film. More of a wonderful and irresistible melancholy look back on childhood. Jonze’s ode to his youth is a highly acted visual picture. Leave it to him to create a fascinating fantasy world! It is all emotionally too intense for (small) children. “Where the Wild Things Are” seems more suitable for those who were once a child and would love to think about it again.

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