Posted by: Tony – Oct 16, 2009
The trailers and commercials for Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are remind us that it is based on one of the most beloved children’s books of all time. This fact will likely stir up a nostalgic sense of excitement for many who remember the book from their youth. Once the excitement passes though, the question must be asked; is there really enough to the book to fill a feature length movie? The book is, after all, a mere ten sentences long. Half of the pages are just illustrations of the wild things dancing. Fortunately, screenwriters Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers are able to successfully convert the short story into a 90 minute tale that is just as heartwarming and imaginative as the original book.
The film focuses on a young boy named Max. He seems to be a bit of a problem child in that he is quick to anger and temper tantrums. When he tries to play with his older sister and her friends, they play back too rough, so Max trashes her bedroom. When his mother insists on serving Max frozen corn against his protests, he dons his wolf costume and bites her. He knows he should not do these things, he just loses control. The fight with his mom scares him into running away from his house and down to a neighborhood creek. He finds a sailboat waiting for him and takes it to a faraway island that is the home of the titular creatures.
Most of the additions to the story are made with the wild things. The original book merely had Max dancing and playing with the wild things until he realized he missed his mom and went home. We get some much needed conflict for the film. Carol, one of the creatures, is violently upset because KW, another wild thing, has left the group to spend time with new friends. There are seven wild things in all, and though they are all hurt by KW’s actions, only Carol loses control. Max, having just arrived on the island, witnesses Carol destroying the huts that the wild things live in. After Max joins in the destruction, the other creatures are impressed by the strange little boy in the wolf costume. They decide to make him their king.
It is in taking control of the wild things that Max begins to learn responsibility. He has to find a way to make everyone happy and keep them all together as a family. He must also keep from upsetting Carol, who, like Max, is prone to temper tantrums. It is implied that Max’s experience with the wild things is all imaginary. Even if it is all internal, becoming a king and being head of a family helps Max to grow up a bit. Dealing with Carol helps Max understand what his mother went through dealing with him. It is touching, and heartwarming, but also a little scary when things go badly and Carol becomes angry. Apparently, Warner Bros. forced Spike Jonze to re-shoot a large portion of the movie because they felt it was too dark for a family friendly film. It would be interesting to see the original cut, though, as the darker side of the monsters is very compelling and could stand to be explored further. Deleted scenes on the DVD release will be a welcome extra.
It is pointless to quibble about what is not in this film, though, as what is present represents such an achievement. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers succeed in what must have been an incredibly difficult task. They turned a story that consisted of ten sentences into a movie. Yes, they had to deviate from and add to the story quite a bit in order to do this, but nothing in the film feels out of place. The screenwriters kept in mind the sense of imagination and familial love that characterized the original book, and are able to give us a film that feels like both a faithful conversion and an original take on this simple story.
By Gareth Mussen