Max (Max Records) is an extremely playful child who enjoys his wild side, often pretending to be a wild beast, but his difficulty coming to terms with his mother’s new boyfriend means he’s acting out too much. One night, he goes too far and runs away. He then finds a boat and sails across a sea to the land where the Wild Things live, large furry beasts who speak like adults but act rather like children themselves. Max is initially entranced, especially after he convinces them he should be their king, but the dysfunctional group starts to hew a little too close to home.
Jonze laudably eschews CGI except for the Wild Things’ faces, instead teaming with the Jim Henson Creature Shop to create full suits for Max to interact with. The combination is seamless and remarkable, and Jonze’s voice casting is pleasantly offbeat, led by James Gandolfini with Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, and Forest Whitaker. There is no way that Jonze would have elicited such a joyous, endearing performance from Records without the extravagant Wild Things being on the set. Despite their post-production visages, they feel utterly real and tactile.
The use of handheld camera and the deliberately drab production design is similarly unconventional, creating a children’s film quite unlike any other. I’m frankly uncertain though whether kids would enjoy the film or get much out of it. The metaphors are sophisticated, even for adults, and the Wild Things more off-putting than endearing. This is of course intentional, as the film is about Max’s awakening to the realities and complexities of the grown-up world he must participate in and eventually join. Jonze’s twist is to make everything about the film reflective of this sombre learning experience, not just the serious moments between colourful characters. The dialogue overlaps slightly in Altmanesque fashion, and there is no quest or adventure narrative. Max just befriends the Wild Things and inspires them to creative and exciting goals, but in the process discovers their unnerving failings of character, which he cannot change.
There is absolutely an arc to the film and to Max, but not a linear one, and this may put off kids and even parents. Indeed, some sequences are distractingly lacking in direction and verve. Jonze is clearly smart enough to be aware of this, yet he chose this path anyway. His film is about childhood, and while its rawness can be discomfiting, it is oddly comforting in its honesty. If they see it at the right age, this may be a child’s first profound movie experience in seeing their life reflected back at them, both literally through Max’s sadness and metaphorically through the Wild Things and their foibles. Consequently, Jonze may have made a rare niche kid’s film, which is quite an accomplishment, although many parents may see nihilism rather than affirmation.
Where the Wild Things Are had a long road to the screen, with numerous delays and rumoured clashes between Jonze and the studio, which is hardly surprising. But the end result is reportedly Jonze’s cut, and it is so esoteric as to clearly be personal. He may not have set a new precedent for the thinking child’s kid’s movie, but this is a worthy film nonetheless. It still pleasantly embodies that cliche too: there’s something for kids and adults, albeit not what they may expect.