Posted October 23, 2009 by William Dunmyer in Uncategorized

Where the Wild Things Are: Beautiful and Alive

“Where the Wild Things Are” is a fantastic and unique film from the incomparable Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”). Twelve-year-old Max Records gives the best performance by a child actor since Anna Paquin’s star-making turn in “The Piano.” I hope Oscar voters remember him at nomination time. Likewise, Mr. Jonze deserves to be on the Best Director ballot. And James Gandolfini also deserves consideration as Best Supporting Actor for his infinitely rich voice-portrayal of Carol, one of the beasts.

Based on Maurice Sendak’s famous children’s book, the film tells the story of a slightly troubled boy who for a time disappears into a fantasy world where huge talking beasts roam the countryside. One of the things I love most about the film is Jonze’s refusal to tame either the boy or the beasts. This boy is no angel, and the beasts come very close to doing him mortal harm several times. In the very first scene, the boy (who has the same first name as the actor, Max) is shown wrestling with his dog. Other directors would have made it cutesy. Jonze makes the boy so ferocious that you fear he’s going to kill the dog with his bare hands. Shortly afterward, he humiliates his mother (played by the always-luminous Catherine Keener) in a way that is quite mean. This film is no Hallmark greeting card — and thank God for that.

“Wild Things” is also directed in a rough, kinetic way, with a fascinating soundtrack of original music from the untamed singer/songwriter Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s).

Max is struggling with several things. First of all, he likes to rough-house. He’s not a kid who colors within the lines or plays music at a moderate volume. One of the first things that draws him to the wild beasts is that they’re not afraid to get dirty or smash stuff. When Max first happens upon the monsters, one of them (the one played by Gandolfini) is exploding with anger, tearing his own house to smithereens. And again, not in a cute way. There is real damage being done. This beast, Carol, becomes Max’s closest friend and major nemesis. (I don’t know why Sendak gave this character a female name. In Gandolfini’s potrayal, he’s all boy.)

Carol seems designed as a reflection, at least to some degree, of Max himself. He’s rough around the edges but is really just looking for companionship. That becomes the overriding theme: man’s undying, and sometimes dangerous, quest for love. Carol’s greatest love interest is KW, a melancholy girl beast brought beautifully to life by Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”). But just as fierce is Carol’s need for boy buddies. When things go awry with Max, Carol’s fury is unsurpassed, and there is real danger that Max will end up dead.

There are four or five other beasts, each with vivid personalities and each given exceptionally good voice-portrayals by the likes of Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, and Chris Cooper. Jonze did a smashing job directing the voice work. Equally astounding is how the masks on the beast costumes were manipulated to convey so much emotion in the face. Not just the eyes, but the noses and mouths as well. This is the best puppeteering I have ever seen. Especially affecting was Paul Dano’s portrayal of the smallest, most timid beast, Alexander. He expresses Max’s softer and more vulnerable side in charming and very funny ways. There is plenty of humor in “Wild Things.”

Max walks away from the experience with the monsters having learned several things, chiefly that everyone at bottom is seeking to be loved. When love is denied, people are capable of the most atrocious things. Hostility within families usually stems from this simple process. Returning home to a distraught and imperfect Mom, Max looks at her with new eyes. This lesson, handled delicately by Jonze, registers on Max’s face perfectly.

“Wild Things” is a simple tale, but it cuts to the heart of what ails most of us. It’s one of those films that many people will enjoy watching once a year, every year. I will no doubt be one of them. Thank you, Spike Jonze.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.