Adapting Where the Wild Things Are, writer Dave Eggers and director Jonze have channeled their inner child to expand the world of the Wild Things to a glorious and complete experience; it is a sublime fantasy that captures the euphoria and violence of a pure and confused mind. When Max goes wild we follow with an enthusiasm and enjoyment rarely seen in what is essentially a cinematic tone poem. It has the sleepy, illusory feeling of reading your child a story very late at night when rational boundaries are at their weakest and dream and nightmares mix with the waking eye.
There’s an excellent chance you already know the story, in fact this is one of the very rare occasions when you can read the source material twice on your way to the cinema, but for the uninitiated Where the Wild Things Are is the story of one night when a rowdy child retreats to his room and goes on a journey to the island of the Wild Things, a group of ferocious yet friendly creatures who make Max their king and have a wild time. It is a deceptively simple story which has charmed generations and the film remains entirely faithful to Maurice Sendak’s work, yet expands on it without ever deviating from its heart.
Max Records plays Max, a boy with a youthful blend of inquisitive introspection and barely contained wildness, and does a wonderful job of evoking a range of emotions and energy that carries the film with a naturalness that only the close relationship with director Jonze can explain. When the behind the scenes featurettes revealed Jonze jumping, screaming and running amok with Max the enjoyment shared was palpable and has made it into every frame of the finished film.
Records is a wonderful presence and carries the film on his shoulders, and it is his enthusaism that draws us into the world, and in one key moment (when Max declares the Wild Rumpus to start) Max and the creatures dash through the forests to the beach beyond, smashing trees and throwing themselves through the air, and I had a huge smile on my face the whole time. It was the feeling of sudden, violent freedom, and the film has many of these moments.
The film is bookended with scenes in Max’s family home and are more than perfunctory and expository framing for a tall tale in a wild wood, and Max’s real world is given just as much significance. Jonze keeps the camera close to Max at all times, and his intrigue and isolation is prominent, and this sets up the journey Max takes very powerfully. Not a frame is wasted, and though the pace of the real world is slow it is also measured to contrast with the rough and tumble nature of the world of the Wild Things.
The final ten minutes is without dialogue and takes Max back from the island to his return home and his grateful mother, and is imbued with more emotion than almost anything else I’ve seen this year, and what makes it so special is the camerawork Jonze employs, with its lingering close ups and the final few shots of Max and his mother conveying a world of emotion with the bare minimum of movement.
The cinematography is perfect for the fractured streams of consciousness that the film relies on. The camera is rarely static, unless a particular effect is called for; when Max takes the boat across the unknown sea the camera is fixed behind him as he watches his home recede into the distance beneath the ocean of stars above and this is a lovely contrast to the energetic handheld feel of the scenes on the island.
It is a necessary device to keep the playful momentum of the film alive, it is the fragmented pacing that allows the games Max plays with the Wild Things to have such resonance with our inner child. Games as children were played with bursts of sudden, random energy, with the adult constraints of time-scales and consequences never considered and Jonze somehow taps into this fluidity and erratic nature with imagination and a tangible understanding of what it means to unleash the childish nature inherent to us all.
Jonze and Eggers delight in the child-like logic and love for ideas as seen through the eyes of a child (such as the notion that one day the Sun will die). The back and forth between Max and the Wild Things is a masterclass in writing for children and never resorting to infantile baby talk. It is a powerful tool which helps the film immeasurably, even in its language the world of the Wild Things is complete.
Some of the most intriguing elements of the film were revealed early on in trailers and footage which made its way onto the eager internet, and one of the key questions raised was how the Wild Things would look on screen. Would Jim Henson’s creatures look like people in suits, with crude Labyrinth-ine animatronic faces and the answer is yes and no, but let me say that everything Jonze and his amazing effects team do with the Wild Things is an unequivocal triumph.
Specifically the Wild Things look stunning, and the people in suit syndrome is perfect for the film – each casual sway and rambunctious movement suits the film’s aesthetic in a way that seems entirely natural to the world. You forget you are watching constructed creatures; they are characters and much of the work is down to the voice actors and scriptwriters, but the athleticism of the character operators is sublime, and each Wild Thing is its own personality – a perfect fusion of script, visual and practical effects.
Jonze is to be congratulated for conveying with grace and boundless vitality the essence of what it is to be a child, with the confusion and confluence of emotions colliding with the boundaries of the adult world. In the world of the Wild Things Max’s invention and dynamism has real results and if you were to complain about the formlessness of actual plot then you would miss the point, it is like complaining about the chill in the air while you watch a meteor shower.
Where the Wild Things Are is a unique vision, replete with amazing performances, a stunning soundtrack from Karen O. and Carter Burwell, and a powerful, evocative central performance. It remains faithful to the book, capturing the spirit and creating a film like no other I’ve seen in a long time, and I felt like a child once more.
Where the Wild Things Are is out in the UK on the 11th of December and you can hear from the filmmakers here.