Another adaptation of a fantasy book for kids? Well yes, in a way, but helmed by the infamous Spike Jonze and with enough layers to appeal to a more mature crowd. Needless to say, this is not the next Narnia or Harry Potter, but a film with the potential to please both children and arthouse audiences. A rarity indeed.
Jonze's film is based on Sendak's children's book, supposedly quite famous though I have to admit I hadn't heard of it before. Interviews will Sendak reveal that Jonze took quite a lot from the book (setting, monster design, setup) but still managed to make the film stand on its own two feet. This is welcome praise from a writer who's obviously quite protective of his own work.
The film sparked much discussion on whether Jonze's version is actually suitable for kids. Which, in my opinion, is a huge underestimate of the capability of children in general. Probably not really suited for the youngest, but depending on what they are used to, this is exactly the type of film with the potential to become a kid's favorite film throughout his entire childhood. Not all children's films have to be happy, jolly, and filled to the brim with musical interludes.
The film introduces us to Max, a little rascal craving attention and approval. Sadly Max is out of luck. His older sister prefers to hang around with her own friends and his mom is preoccupied with trying to keep her job going. Such is life, but for a little boy, these things are quite hard to grasp. When Max bursts, he runs away and ends up on the island of the Monsters. Wild, furry, and somewhat dangerous creatures who sport very childlike behavior. They are the inner emotions of Max, brought to life.
The monster design is taken directly from the book, but the way they are brought to life in this film is quite simply stunning. A perfect blend of CG and suits, which makes the monsters look huge and very detailed, sporting an incredible sense of belonging. These are not CG chunks battling with gravity and their surroundings, but actual lumps of fur enhanced with CG, making the interaction with their environments quite surreal at times.
Jonze chooses a camera that's quite active and close to its main characters. The mood is helped by the atmospheric play of light during magic hour. This elevates the level of reality to heights quite unknown for a fantasy film aimed at kids. Very cool indeed.
The soundtrack, though fitting, is probably the weakest link in the film. It goes well with what is happening on screen, but it lacks identity, and rather than improving the film, it keeps it at exactly the same level. A missed chance, though it never feels out of place or misguided.
Acting is good too. Max is pretty believable in his role as a slightly overactive little kid. He's not the most charming of kids, but that's due to his character, not bad acting. The monsters too are a lot of fun. Good voice acting all around, increasing their distinctive feel.
Where The Wild Things Are sees Max conquering some of his own shortcomings. It's a film about growing up in the purest sense of the word. The ending is short, to the point, and lacks clear morale, other than that problems can be conquered and the experience will make us wiser, and even better as a person. It's not about big lessons in life, but about living itself.
But most of all, Where The Wild Things Are is a magical, fantastical film presented in a pretty realistic and believable way. It's not following a strict narrative but flows to the waves of childlike wonder and pleasure. Jonze's execution is flawless, making it a marvelously surreal trip through Monsterland. Highly recommended.