With Where the Wild Things Are, idiosyncratic genius Spike Jonze tapped his inner Kubrick and his inner Malick, and made a $100 million art film, a project not necessarily for children, but centering on a child, told in a mature, intelligent, creative, and singular way. I was expecting something grand when I first encountered this film on the big screen roughly six years ago, and I definitely got that. It’s just that I wasn’t sure what the end result was going to be, what with all of the fighting between Jonze and Warner Brothers during production, and the troubled shoot and endless post-production process. The film is definitely “the book,” so anyone who was afraid that Jonze and crew wouldn’t remain faithful to Maurice Sendak’s original source material can stay calm. But for me, it’s much more than the book; it’s a painful movie about the effects of divorce and how it shapes children, and in the case of the film’s hero, Max, how it informs an awkward boy as he starts to understand his uncertain familial future. This is as bold of a “kids” movie as I’ve ever seen, but again, I hesitate to really call it a “kids” movie. For a film that went through years of production and creative turmoil, you’d never know it. Where the Wild Things Are is, above all, a visual marvel; the creatures themselves are some of the most beguiling cinematic creations that have ever been imagined. The idea to go man-in-suit with the Wild Things was a great idea. This low-tech, old-school approach has been perfectly mixed with state of the art visual effects for the eyes and mouths, and the results are nothing less than stunning.
Lance Acord’s gorgeous, hand-held, and totally engrossing cinematography was some of that year’s best shooting, and the driving, upbeat yet melancholy score brought everything together. And one must credit director David Fincher, for showing Jonze the technology he was using at the time on Benjamin Button, as that gave Jonze the confidence to use a blending of CGI and men-in-suit performances. And I haven’t even touched upon the performance of Max Records as Max; in short, it was an auspicious debut. The entire movie hangs on his performance, and he really was captivating. But it was the interactions between the Wild Things that will keep me coming back to this film in years to come. Where the Wild Things Are was one of the best films from 2009, but it’s not going to be loved by all; it’s too specific and too artistic to garner universal love. I think little kids, by and large, will be scared by it, and will probably be turned off by the lack of major action set-pieces and cheap and easy cutesy-humor bits. This isn’t a whiz-bang CGI creation with bright colors and easy to digest themes. It’s a potentially damaging film that is more likely to be appreciated by adults, and by people who loved the book as a child. And maybe most impressively, few other films have conjured up fever-dream images quite like the way Wild Things does. Despite receiving warm critical embrace, the film failed to achieve blockbuster status. But that doesn’t mean that the movie is uniquely special in ways that money can’t describe.