“How could guys like us worry about a tiny little thing like the sun?”
The bracing melancholy of childhood is an underrepresented phenomenon in popular entertainment. By and large, children’s films prefer to coast by, parading antiquated, uninteresting archetypes and reducing all conflict to clinical action sequences devoid of substance or originality (see: Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland“).
So, when a film comes along with as little interest in soulless plot machinery and as much penetrative authenticity as “Where the Wild Things Are,” it’s no surprise that it’s divisive on all fronts and relatively maligned. How else can you explain its total exclusion from the Oscars this year? It is the most expressive and nuanced film about the loneliness of childhood I’ve ever seen. And in that respect, it brings to mind another film of comparable power: Rob Reiner’s enduring masterpiece, “Stand by Me.”
The lifeblood of that film was the aching memories of childhood friendships long since diminished and the bonds forged that propelled us toward adulthood. It functioned totally differently than “Where the Wild Things Are” in just about every respect, but the notes it hit coincided with the latter film perfectly and reached a depth of raw human emotional experience equal to it.
In adapting Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Spike Jonze took very basic visual and thematic ideas and extrapolated them to a work of tremendous honesty. There isn’t a phony or misjudged step in the entire picture, and that’s really saying something special considering it’s a film about a young boy’s sea voyage to an island inhabited by monsters. Opening scenes of delicate simplicity show Max–played by Max Records in his first starring role–in various contexts of temperment and behavior; he’s shown chasing his dog around the house, building an igloo outside in a pile of displaced snow, wordlessly lamenting his father’s absence, and acting out in what’s probably the most accurate on screen depiction of prepubescent obstreperousness to date.
What’s so marvelous about those early scenes is that they tune you right into his world and the manner of his domestic interplay so that everything that follows feels like their logical extension. When I saw his igloo being demolished by his older sister’s friend, both perspectives hit me on a gut level. I’ve been let down and hurt by someone older than me just as much as I’ve been the one to let down and hurt someone younger than me. And that level of recognition is profound. The fact that it’s the product of an early scene largely unrelated to the broader narrative makes the craftsmanship on display all the more absorbing.
But using that realistic, grounded foundation as a springboard for the film’s passages on the island is only half the battle. Jonze and fellow screenwriter David Eggers characterize the island’s populace with their own set of complicated interpersonal modalities and individual traits that enable them to have deep, deep emotional and psychological resonance. They draw parallels with his home life which slowly and beautifully reveal themselves and give the film a dream-like, allegorical quality while also involving us in the unfolding events on their own terms.
What I mean by that is that what each monster represents ends up ultimately taking a back seat to their own existence, independent of symbolism. And that’s something that could’ve been very easily mishandled. The tale could’ve become some kind of silly fable with hollow characters existing simply to impart a lesson to the viewer or act as stand ins for less colorful versions of themselves in the real world. But neither is the case. The conversation Carol and Max have as they’re traversing the desert about the sun dying is one of the most moving scenes in recent memory; there’s a purity and vibrancy in it that’s all too rare. And that purity and vibrancy pervades their entire relationship, as well as those surrounding it.
On a technical level, you’d be hard pressed to find any other film that blends CGI with live action as seamlessly, and, to an even larger extent, one that does so while retaining its underlying realism so fully. It’s not just that you’re ocularly convinced of the wild things’ physical existence; it’s that you’re emotionally convinced of their existence on a human level. So much so, in fact, that the level of FX wizardry employed is easily forgotten.
The actors voicing the monsters all add something rather nebulous to the film’s universal success. James Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose in particular as Carol and KW instill in their dynamic massive warmth and confusion and sincerity that follows an emotional logic all their own.
Like any great work of art, there’s something inscrutable in its construction that evades analysis. For me, I suppose the closest I’ll ever get to knowing why the film so quickly and assuredly burrowed itself into my heart and mind is that it taps into a dormant part of myself. It taps into the part of me that holds onto characters in dreams I had as a little kid and identifies with the emotional fluctuations that occupy the formative years of the human experience.