This review was originally written in 2009 for a blog I kept called Total Cinema.
Spike Jonze is 40 years old, a film-maker who garnered a reputation as an existential, slightly absurd, and very meta director after his first collaboration with writer Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich (1999), and the film they made three years later, Adaptation. (2002). His latest, Where the Wild Things Are, a translation of Maurice Sendak’s classic eight-line picture book into film, is none of these heady things: it is a wholly realized adventure story where the clarity of vision comes from Jonze’s masterful depiction of the child character’s mind. All elements of film come together to convey perfectly the energy and emotion of youth, from the shaky camera to Karen O (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs) alternating gleeful whoops and cheers to mournful crooning throughout the soundtrack. Even at 40 the director still has a clear understanding of what it was to be a child.
Jonze takes all the necessary liberties in Where the Wild Things Are, stretching the plot and adding characters while staying true to the core of the original story. Max (Max Records) is a good kid, want of attention, who one night throws a tantrum and is sent to his room without dinner. Instead of obeying, he runs out into the streets and the forest, to the shore and sets sail on the boat he finds there. He is caught in a storm at night, but manages to land safely on a mysterious island where he comes across a camp of arguing monsters. The one with the shaggy head, the striped torso and feathery legs (Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini), is destroying their huts while the others look on. Max joins in with the destruction, and after a tense moment where the monsters consider eating him, he convinces them that he has magical powers that will bring harmony to the group. They elect him king, and he decides to begin construction on a humongous fort. Contention arises mainly between the jealous Carol and his crush K.W., and Judith (Catherine O’Hara), who nags Max constantly. It escalates until Carol discovers that Max is not, in fact, a viking conqueror, and nor does he have magic powers; he is crushed and throws a tantrum. After talking to K.W., Max comes to appreciate his mother’s position and decides that it is time to return home.
The monsters in Where the Wild Things Are are all children, just like Max, even though some of them are in relationships. Each one reflects a different facet of his psyche: Carol expresses himself the way Max would; K.W. fills the role of the wise older sister; Alex is the youngest and smallest monster whom the others, his family, mostly ignore, like Max’s family does to him. It feels insulting to say that Jonze’s talent can be seen in the immaturity of his characters’ conflicts, but it’s true. Max and the monsters’ emotional responses to conflicts are brilliantly authentic of children, as the rest of the film is.