Where the Wild Things Aren’t

Eggers and Jonze Make a Sendak Movie That’s Not for Kids

Chasing the Wild: Max (Max Records) chases Carol (James Gandolfini) in the film.
COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES
Chasing the Wild: Max (Max Records) chases Carol (James Gandolfini) in the film.

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

Published October 16, 2009, issue of October 30, 2009.
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Turns out it’s not for kids. But adults will love this movie. Not only for capturing the subtlety of the original 10 sentences of Maurice Sendak’s book, but also for tackling the thorny issues of absent fathers and depression through a child’s unsullied eyes.

“Where the Wild Things Are,” the movie, opens with a snowball fight that quickly goes sour, a missing father and a mother caught smooching his prospective replacement. These disappointments form a soup of emotions that Max (played by the charming, fortuitously named Max Records) addresses by transforming into a beast in his kitchen. Catherine Keener, her voice characteristically smoky, plays his mother, nailing the thinning patience and the perpetual exhaustion as she encourages him off the table. Beastie Max responds by proving his bite is as tough as his bark and chomping on her shoulder.

Live action Max, like his paper counterpart, navigates a sailboat to the refuge of the unknown, where his troubles of vanity and boyhood won’t be solved, where he’ll be given the task of fixing adult problems all by himself.

In contrast to Max’s primary-colored life, the wild island he maroons himself on has the dull shades of an English morning. Vast forests, beaches and deserts necessitate protection so shields abound, from the brawny physical to the squishier emotional. There are also plenty of actual and metaphorical precipices on which to teeter. Every shot is beautifully lit and expertly composed. A fine line is drawn between the literal and figurative: Revelry is interspersed with constant reminders of adolescence’s unknowns and dangers.

In a sop to the kids’ film market, the large-headed Things appear more cuddly than frightening. They vote not to eat Max, but I’m unconvinced that they — with their silly plodding and googly eyes — could even have mustered that much savagery if they tried. During his tour of the land with Carol (James Gandolfini), Max is told, like kids before him and to come, that everything is his except for what isn’t. Max and his new pals almost immediately begin building a sort of happiness bio dome amid the chaos. Despite the groups’ store of energy, this undertaking is every bit as difficult as it sounds.

For a film whose currency is rumpus, “Where the Wild Things Are” is spendthrift.

Monstrously Taxing: Alexander takes a seat on the set of ‘Wild Things.’
PHOTO BY ANDERS OVERGAARD
Monstrously Taxing: Alexander takes a seat on the set of ‘Wild Things.’

The Things sleep in a pile, spring upward precipitously: and make a war of thwacking one another with dirt clods. Much of the action feels thrust upon us by the camera, which itself is often running along handheld and jittery. An intricate tangle of relationship dynamics both glue the Things together, and plague their very existence. After all, like Sendak’s family in Brooklyn upon which they are modeled, they are a big Jewish family.

Max may be their king, but what they really want is a father who can inspire and soothe and keep away the loneliness. It’s too tall a duty for anyone to succeed. Love and comfort are exactly what Max himself seeks, which explains his favoritism toward Carol and his occasional girlfriend, KW (Lauren Ambrose). Max wears a crown, but he is very much a fort-building boy — questing for approval, delighting in hugs. They want the image of an adult; he has the feelings of a boy.

The film treats Max’s exit quite differently from the book: The tempestuous Carol, after feuding with Max for breaking his impossible promise to keep everybody happy, comes barreling from behind the peaks to see him off with the rest of the broken hearted Things. KW tenderly embraces our hero, mommy-style, but Carol, ever the undemonstrative father-figure, simply howls to acknowledge his loss. Max does go home again, where both mom and chocolate cake await him, but one wonders what will become of the comrades he has left behind.

If these don’t sound like children’s themes, it’s because they aren’t. Not that children aren’t smart or perceptive. It’s just that the heaviness and subtly of this drama is likely to bore them senseless; It did to the young wild thing who sat behind me at a recent screening and who did not like it, “not at all!”

Plus, it’s all set to the emotionally wrenching vocals of Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and her choir of kids. These raw and tonal songs may have young singers but they are hardly children’s tunes. They match the sadness and euphoria between which the film careens.

Like any kid who grew up with the book on her nightstand, a special thrill went down my spine when I heard that “Where the Wild Things Are” would be adapted for screen by the fearless, former skateboarder and Beastie Boys video director, Spike Jonze, whose “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich” also won my heart.

This beautiful movie will float the box office on the very grown-up sense of nostalgia that it engenders. A furry-covered novel adaptation by the co-screen writer, Dave Eggers, Jonze’s forthcoming documentary on Sendak and the booty at Urban Outfitters (pillow cases, shadow puppets, T-shirts) are all intended to tell us so.

Yet, my cinema was kid-filled, and some had already crowned themselves king, like Max, in what will surely be part of a redundant Halloween costume for those still losing their teeth. Bensonhurst-bred Sendak — the child of Jewish immigrant parents — probably never envisioned his own demon dreams and escapist fantasies performed by Hollywood’s finest dressed up in Muppet outfits, with facial expressions courtesy of computer animation. I guess adults are not yet ready for the rawness of a child’s wild experience.

Allison Gaudet Yarrow is the assistant web editor of the Forward.


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