Where the Wild Things AreThe live action version of Maurice Sendak’s illustrated children’s book, in development and production trouble for many years, finally made it to the screen in late 2009. For director and co-writer Spike Jonze, its completion marked the end of a very personal tale, the story of Max the explorer story occupied almost a decade of his life. For the rather short and almost completely word-less source material not only required expansion to fill a feature-length film, the sense of adventure, and spirit of the novel would be forever lost with a director not entirely at one with Sendak’s vision and the fertile imagination of a child. Certainly, Jonze’s previous projects, oddity pictures like “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” showed offbeat character that captured the imaginations of moviegoers while at the same time remaining technically sharp and highly intelligent.

After being disobedient towards his mother (Katherine Keener), bright, wild and enthusiastic eight-year-old Max (new discovery Max Records) runs away from home, still dressed in his wolf costume. Finding a small boat, he sails out of its pond and out over the ocean expanses, landing on an island inhabited by wild monsters. After convincing them not to eat him and telling of his otherworldly powers, the “wild things” make Max their king and part of their lives. Led by the friendly and cuddly but easily hurt Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the fantasy monsters are themselves childlike in their behaviour, each one representing one of Max’s wildly swinging emotions from hyperactive exhilaration to deep hurt. Together the eccentric troupe stage a wild rumpus, dirt-clod wars, build a fort and all sleep in a big pile, at times having great fun but again and again disagreeing and eventually turning against Max as they realise he has no powers to take away all their sadness. It is by all accounts a twisted fairytale but one that is so incredibly charming we cannot help but fall in love with the ins and outs of these wild things, Jonze’s world expertly designed and a treat to look at.

Created with a combination of animatronic puppets for their bodies and computer generated imagery for facial expressions, the wild things are scary yet entirely loveable. All their distinct characters have been properly fleshed out to make the wild things island come alive in a way that is most true to Sendak’s creations.  The film’s real stroke of genius lies in Max Records however. As always with child actors, the lines between acting per se and real behaviour are blurred but Records impresses both through an excellent range of emotions and the sort of utter believability that never for one second wavers. Potentially quite scary for young children – as all fairytales are in essence – Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers’ extended plot is laden with metaphors about childhood, adulthood, freedom and responsibility that will have adult viewers yearn back to as well as contemplate their childhood in a deeper manner than before. Some of the film’s harsher moments are indeed disturbing and traumatic, Max’s own destructive tendencies as well as the destruction of his igloo and Carol’s miniature creation. The overarching sense of concern though is completely at one with many children’s world views – as excellently portrayed in an early classroom scene. Children tease out these fundamental and philosophical questions as we adults do, childhood innocence is something we perhaps misunderstand. Do not be deterred however, “Where the Wild Things Are” never attempts to lecture, simply to portray the pendulum of childhood emotions and always incredibly charming.

Where the Wild Things Are OSTThe film’s soundtrack consists of original songs written and performed by Karen O and the Kids as well as a score by Carter Burwell. Karen O’s vocals are very well suited to the spirit of the story Jonze is portraying, a sort of childlike humming that is memorable and likeable from the outset. Whistling, as well as light guitars and percussion make up highlights such as “All is Love” on the album. In the film itself, the music is occasionally placed too high in the mix, drowning up some of the monsters’ dialogue. Burwell’s contributions can be found on a separate all-score album. Despite containing some exceptional Violin and piano work in “We Love You So” and harmonic mystery in “Sailing,” neither the score nor the songs can never quite muster the same likability factor as the visuals and remains a minor disappointment. That said, the song album in particular may very well be enjoyed separate from the film and can function almost as a solo album.

It is impossible not to like “Where the Wild Things Are” and Spike Jonze has created a charming fairytale that will appeal to almost everyone. Some fans of the book may be disappointed at the changing of a key plot-point (Max is sent to bed without dinner as his mother calls him a wild thing), this has little impact on the film’s standing as an expertly told children’s fantasy tale.

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