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Dustin Putman

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Where the Wild Things Are  (2009)
4 Stars
Directed by Spike Jonze.
Cast: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Pepita Emmerichs, Mark Ruffalo, Steve Mouzakis; voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Michael Berry Jr.
2009 – 101 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for mild thematic elements and brief language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 14, 2009.
As far from a pandering kid movie or a paint-by-numbers adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book as one could get, "Where the Wild Things Are" is something of a modern miracle. The road to the big screen has been a rocky one for this ambitious project, with filmmaker Spike Jonze (2002's "Adaptation.") and distributor Warner Bros. Pictures clashing for a time over a final product that wasn't nearly as cutesy and cookie-cutter as the studio envisioned. Why a Hollywood production company would second-guess an artist of his caliber is anyone's guess, but, fortunately, Jonze persevered with his one-of-a-kind vision. Primarily filmed in 2006 and 2007 before understandably extensive post-production work pushed its release to 2009, what has ultimately ended up in the finished cut is, indeed, what writer-director Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers (2009's "Away We Go") intended all along. Bold and cinematic, at once wondrously epic yet achingly intimate and honest, "Where the Wild Things Are" has what it takes to touch and enchant generations of audiences at pretty much every age level. Touting it as this century's answer to 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" would not be flagrant hyperbole.

Life, by design, is filled with extremes—joy and sorrow, success and failure, luck and misfortune. At nine years old, however, all of these feelings are magnified by a thousand, and you don't always know how to process them. So it goes with Max (Max Records), a ball of energy and mischief who feels betrayed when his teenage sister (Pepita Emmerichs) no longer wants to play with him and a harmless snowball fight ends with her friends trashing the snow igloo he's made in the front yard. Max's caring single mother (Catherine Keener) tries to comfort him, but his unruly behavior only gets worse after she invites her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) over for dinner. An altercation occurs between them and Max, angry and ashamed, flees into the night. He spots a small boat at the edge of a forest and sets sail, coming upon an island inhabited by nine-foot-tall creatures who are collectively going through all the same conflicting emotions as he. Max, frightened that he's going to be eaten, thinks quick and declares himself a king. He promptly becomes their leader and their friend, but keeping a handle on a group of wild things, each with their own problems and hang-ups, turns out to be more difficult than expected. It is this catalyst that helps him to see his mom in a new light, and understand, if only a little, what she must be going through.

Children of about Max's age will likely adore "Where the Wild Things Are" and see things as he sees them, in the present of any given onscreen situation, but the film will have a notably deeper impact on adult viewers. With more life experience comes greater knowledge and consideration of how fleeting one's childhood is, and it is this foresight that will allow grown-ups to identify with Max even as they yearn for him to straighten up and recognize what he has in front of him. To sit before this stunning technical and dramatic achievement and allow its unhurried, thoughtful, always intoxicating images to wash over one's eyes is akin to being transplanted back, into the body of a real nine-year-old boy for 100 minutes, reconnecting to memories that are our own. Feeling lonely and passing the time by playing make-believe games with yourself; getting hurt and upset at the height of roughhousing frivolity; destroying a loved one's possession and then immediately wishing you could take it all back, wanting attention from your parent while they are going through tough times you don't fully grasp; acting up when you feel jealous or betrayed—all of these things happen to Max, and it is safe to say most of them have happened to all of us. It takes a truly special motion picture to so accurately key in on the common truths of pre-adolescence and the relationships we share with our family members.

Once away from home and on his journey of self-discovery, Max washes ashore onto the stomping grounds of the wild things, a fantasy world that, as shot on location along the stunning Ivory Coast of Australia, is rooted in a critical reality. Mysteriously desolate, the eclectic landscape of rock, sea, wood and desert where the group of seven wild things congregate and share their own living quarters, the setting allows for the physical scope to expand as it would in a child's mind. By filming in legitimate places—forests, oceans, cliffs, sand dunes—rather than on soundstages, it only adds to the believability that this sort of alternate land exists. That the cinematography is by Lance Acord, a frequent collaborator of Sofia Coppola's who has been responsible for the gorgeous looks of 2003's "Lost in Translation" and 2006's "Marie Antoinette," is no surprise. Acord's lyrical sensibilities in capturing the very essence of his subjects are exquisite, so beautifully specific and on-the-mark that they are never anything less than memorable. Incorporating giant creatures—actors in live-action suits—into the frames with young Max only increases the astonishing blend of surrealism and verisimilitude.

Speaking of the wild things, all seven of them are so astutely written, voiced and designed that they immediately individualize themselves as separate, full-fledged characters. With only seamless CGI effects helping to give them mobile faces, the wild things are otherwise au naturale, so very real and humane that one can sense the souls behind their eyes. This is nothing less than a grand accomplishment on the part of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Furthermore, the wild things' personalities symbolically run parallel with all the facets of Max's own, and it is fascinating to see how Max relates to each of them. They may be huge and imposing, but they all share a child's mentality. Thus, steadfast dreamer Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) shares with Max a scale model of a community he has created that started as a group project before the others lost interest. He pines away for KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), who seems more interested in running off and hanging out with friends Bob and Terry. When KW brings her allegedly wise pals back to camp for the first time and Carol discovers Bob and Terry to be nothing but owls carried under her arms, he confides in Max: "I couldn't understand what they were saying. All I heard was squeaking." Max, who has had similar experiences with his sister's supposedly cool friends, knows what he means.

Meanwhile, Judith (voiced by Catherine O'Hara) is a dour sort who gets upset only after she instigates an argument with Max and he starts repeating everything she says, and poor Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano) whiles away his days being ignored by everyone no matter what he says. When, during a dirt clod fight, he is hit and injured, the others don't pay him any mind until they, too, start getting hurt. Max finally does sit down with Alexander and listen to him, and it is a turning point for our hero, who is now more in-tune with other people's feelings (and, as an extension, his own) and has learned what it means to be less selfish and more sympathetic. By the time he tells KW, "I wish you guys had a mom," before confiding in her that it is time for him to go home, the weight of what is inferred and the revelation of how Max has evolved during his time there is enough to pierce the viewer's heart. He's growing up.

Just as there would be no source material without author Maurice Sendak, there would be no film—at least, not the glorious one that has been made—without newcomer Max Records. Simply put, he is Max, purely and naturally bringing to light all the different sides to a protagonist who, even when he misbehaves or is frustrating, the viewer can perceive at all times where he is coming from. Expressive without having to do much at all, Records additionally has a terrific look and the gift of being able to embody a role and all the demands that come with it without ever pushing too hard or overacting. As Max's harried but loving mother, Catherine Keener (2009's "The Soloist") has the very same talent as Records in the way that she can say so much about the character she is playing with nothing more than a mannerism or facial expression. Keener has little screen time, but she makes the most of it, breathtakingly giving three dimensions to a woman whose struggles range from work to being a good parent to finding time for herself. Voice talent is exceptional across the board, too, each actor so committed to their respective wild thing that they could just as well be up on a stage performing Shakespeare. There is no such thing as a throwaway performance here; each one is vital, complex, and in the moment.

A character study. A fantasy. A family drama. A coming-of-age story. A psychological study into the inner workings of a child's mind. A poetic reflection on distinguishing one's feelings, and taking control of, and responsibility for, them. "Where the Wild Things Are" is all of these things and so much more, a motion picture boundless yet focused, blessedly concerned more with tone and emotional sensitivity than plot. The ending, as Max bids farewell to his new friends and faces his worried mother once more, is perfectly staged, certain to moisten all but the most stubborn of tear ducts. The final couple shots—simple, still and silent—are sublime, speaking far louder than words ever could. Max won't quite have the same level of innocence and imagination for much longer, and, whereas this could be viewed as something of a tragedy, director Spike Jonze sees it as a bittersweet process of life. "Where the Wild Things Are" is easily one of the year's best films, making greatness seem deceptively easy.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman