A couple of weeks ago I was talking with a British film producer about the movies we’d seen lately that had excited us. And we both came to the conclusion that we’d been much more thrilled, more stimulated and more surprised by recent stage performances than by anything we’d seen in cinemas. Shows like Internal or It Felt Like A Kiss, which challenge narrative conventions, create extreme emotions and immerse their viewers in new worlds feel infinitely more exciting than the well-crafted but ultimately predictable stories that most films are content to tell.
Because Where The Wild Things Are is the exception: a film that is so beautiful, so unpredictable, so complete in its own logic and so entirely real within its own dream narrative that it feels as live, spontaneous and unexpected as the very best theatre. It’s also (and this is a recommendation, not a warning) a film that left more adults crying than anything I’ve seen this year.
You’re probably familiar with the basics: Max, a young boy frustrated by the impositions of the grown-up world, travels to the land of the Wild Things, who appoint him their king for a brief time, after which he returns to his own life, both chastened and exhilarated by the adventures he has found. It’s a book that most American children are brought up on, although we should not forget that it has always been a controversial one. Ever since first publication it has been criticised for being too dark, too frightening or quite simply too strange for kids, a criticism, of course, led entirely by adults: children, just as with the works of Roald Dahl or Edward Gorey, have always wholeheartedly embraced the complexities of Sendak’s world.
And it is complex, both in the traditional and psychological senses of the word: this is not a world of simple good and evil, but of shifting loyalties, confusing motives and sudden, often frightening changes of mood. For the world of the Wild Things is the world as felt through the eyes of a child, a parallel that’s brilliantly established in the first scene of the movie, when a thrilling snowball fight turns ugly, and laughter turns to tears. In Max’s eyes, as in any child’s, a casual remark from a parent can mean everything or nothing, depending on his mood, and when his mother (Catherine Keener) refuses to play with him, Jonze makes us feel exactly why Max runs away into the night.
After a dangerous journey he arrives on the shore of the Wild Things’ land. And this is where, unlike almost every movie in which children step into a magical world, Wild Things gets it exquisitely, perfectly right. Because just as any child’s imaginary world feels as real — often more so — than the real one, this feels entirely authentic, just like the Wild Things themselves. Huge, shambling, loveable, dangerous, they soon discover the new arrival, and it’s clear that Max could just as well become their dinner as their king. Luckily he manages to convince them not just that they need him, but that he has the necessary experience to rule, and so, despite some reservations, he’s soon crowned leader of the pack.
But power has its perils, and Max quickly discovers that, while the Wild Things are happy to be ruled, they expect a good deal in return. This is the heart of the film, as each of the Wild Things emerges as an absolutely distinct character, while at the same time reflecting different elements of Max’s life back home. The vocal performances are extraordinary: unlike most animated movies, where stars record their voices separately, often literally phoning it in, the Wild Thing actors rehearsed together as a company, and the extra work pays off. These are award-worthy performances, particularly James Gandolfini as Carol and Paul Dano as Alexander, while Catherine O’Hara as Judith is a Woody Allen-worthy kvetch. And as the story deepens and darkens, and everything becomes uncertain, we’re forced again to wonder — will the Wild Things, to save their country, be forced to eat their king?
If all this sounds unlike most children’s movies — well, it is. Wild Things doesn’t offer easy answers, and its consolation is hard won. I think that children will enjoy it, but that, quite properly, it will provoke some complex conversations, and perhaps some troubling dreams. Because while most kids’ films are about a child, Wild Things is about being one, in all its joys, terrors and uncertainties. It’s a film that I wish had been around when I was one, because it’s the film you’d want to show to adults to remind them what it’s like. And it’s a movie that, for adults, is about what we have lost: the feelings, the places and the people who have slipped beyond our grasp. Where The Wild Things Are is one of the most emotionally daring pictures that a major studio has made, and for all the reported complexities and disagreements of its production we should credit Warner Brothers for their courage. Because in a world that’s full of movies that offer bland, synthetic comfort, Wild Things is a troubling reminder that we are all, when it comes down to it, just monsters howling in the dark.