Netflix UK film review: Where the Wild Things Are
Ivan Radford | On 30, Dec 2014
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Max Records, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano
Watch Where the Wild Things Are online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
It’s a tough line to draw, between childhood and adulthood – once you’ve aged and you’re all craggy, can you really remember what it’s like to run riot with your imagination, throw snowballs, or piddle in a swimming pool? Spike Jonze clearly can: his distinctive take on Maurice Sendak’s much-loved picture book is a heart-warming, soul-crushing, gorgeous lump of a movie. And best of all? It reeks of childhood. (Imagination, that is. Not piddle.)
Jonze’s adaptation is certainly a personal one – deviating from Sendak’s story, his Where the Wild Things Are sees Max (the brilliantly natural Records) literally run away from home, after biting his mother on the arm (Keener). He doesn’t just walk into a forest through his bedroom wall. Injured in a snowball fight with his sister and her friends, Max is rejected and angry, only to find little attention at home. So he dons his monster suit and sneaks out the front door, setting sail to a far-off island. While adult purists might be disappointed, there’s no less honesty in this retelling; from a child’s perspective, imagination and reality look exactly the same, magic wallpaper or no magic wallpaper. If anything, this new scenario adds an edge of fear to the whole thing.
For younger kids, that may be a problem. But Spike and Dave Egger’s ambitious script makes the most of its PG certificate, introducing mild destruction, anger, and even a heap of decaying bones (perhaps belonging to previous visitors to the Wild Things’ home). So when Max is crowned their King, it’s a role of responsibility, tinged with danger. At first, he brings fun to their lives, promising happiness for all, but soon discovers the weight that hangs on his tiny head.
Unlike Sendak’s 20-sentence book, each of the Wild Things have names and neuroses. Carol (Gandolfini) is reckless and destructive; KW (Ambrose) is reclusive; Alexander (Dano) is needy; and Judith (O’Hara) is pessimistic. True to their creation, they’re all untamed beasts, leaping from happiness to envy to rage in a few moments; more than anything else, though, these creatures are sad.
Sure, they all represent bits of Max’s personality, but the shallow Freudian approach isn’t trying to be clever or intellectual; it’s trying to be honest. And by heck, it is. Jonze and Eggers tenderly explore the complex relationships between ourselves and those around us without pandering to kids, parents, or (most importantly) money-making studios. No wonder Warner Bros were reportedly perplexed by the end result – this is one of the most unique, and morose, family films ever made. And it’s brilliant.
Amid the gentle simplicity of one-on-one conversations, there are still bursts of excitement and action. Running, jumping and throwing things around, these monsters lob dirt clods at each other’s heads with rampant glee. Nonetheless, people get hurt. And you can see it in their faces – huge furry clumps of cuteness, the giant costumed actors are delicately embellished with CGI expressions. Bringing their pain and joy vividly to life, it’s like spending quality time with a herd of nine-foot sentient Jaffa Cakes; they’re soft, bitter and a little bit orange.
Wandering from beach to tree, the Wild Things take in the breathless cinematography and beautiful production design.
“All this used to be rock,” Gandolfini’s Carol tells Max, strolling through a sedate desert.
“Then it turned to sand, then it will turn to dust. I’m not sure what comes after dust.”
Dark in tone but light in visuals, this is a place of kinetic camerawork and jumpy frames, a lo-fi indie look around a mainstream map; bathed in glowing sunlight, Jonze’s vision matches Maurice’s illustrations to the minutest brushstroke. Where the Wild Things Are is a pleasure to watch, but even more so to feel, no matter what age you are. Because Spike hasn’t just made a children’s movie: he’s made a movie about childhood. It’s vast, simple and full of wonder.
Where the Wild Things Are is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.