Maurice Sendak, who recently passed away, was one of the most controversial yet still imaginative authors to ever have been published. The stories he wrote are very much like Grimm's Fairy Tales: whimsical and fun, but still dark and threatening. He didn't pander or sugarcoat his stories simply because he didn't feel a need (as well as a rather unpleasant childhood that introduced him to mortality in a less gentle light than most kids, but that's another story). These come through in such books as 1981's Outside Over There, 1970's In the Night Kitchen, and, in the case of this review, 1963's Where the Wild Things Are.
The funny thing about the latter is that this book is only 9 sentences long! That's a short book, even by children's standards, despite the story being told more with pictures than words. So, naturally, director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers had to go out on a limb with the extra effort if they were to successfully make a movie based on it. The effort is an interesting and impressive venture; No embellishment, no sugarcoating, just a stripped- down, but still whimsical tale of a child's curiosity and imagination.
The story is pretty much the same: Max, (Max Records, believably a kid), an imaginative, but frustrated kid gets into a fight with his stressed-out mother (Catherine Keener), runs away, and soon finds himself floating to a strange land, wherein dwell creatures that are both terrifying and fascinating at the same time. It's a simple story, but, as said before, they get across a lot with what they have.
The performances in this movie are stellar. Max Records plays Max as...well, a kid. He doesn't pander to the audience or become cloying and 'pwe-shuss' at any point in the movie. He's angry, bratty, imaginative, playful, greedy, attention-seeking, kind and all those other things a normal kid is. This doesn't make him a bad person, but it does make him humble and endearing when coming across what he sees and experiences with the titular "Wild Things." Speaking of which, these creatures not only look great, but are also something of (which has been made abundantly clear by most of the critics, but it's still there) a representation of Max himself. Take the imposing, but enthusiastic Carol (James Gandolfini, aka Tony Soprano), for instance. He's Max's pent-up frustration, creativity and longing for love. Loudmouth Judith (Catherine O'Hara, a scene stealer) is Max's brazen independence. Gentle Ira (Forest Witaker), is Max's artistic ideals. Shy Alexander (Little Miss Sunshine's Paul Dano) is Max's longing to be heard, as well as his fragile naïveté. And the gentle KW (Lauren Ambrose) is the feeling of maternity that Max has not felt from his own mother in a long, long time. Once he discovers these fragments and puts them together, he realizes that there is more love to be had at home than he realized.
The visuals in this movie are also great. The place where the island is doesn't have any magical places aside from the Wild Things themselves, but its full of trees, dirt and desert plains that are barren and empty. But, it's what they do with it that makes it impressive. They have huts made of branches, a dirt clod fight, long walks along the desert, and even the building of a huge hut. It's so massive, just like an imagination.
The only problem with this movie is that it can gets pretty depressing at times. It's probably supposed to be pushing boundaries, as the original book did, but the conversations, dialogue and themes can become quite weighty, and brings the movie to a grinding halt. This is especially true towards the end, when Carol becomes more and more savage, and tensions rise between Max and the Wild Things. But, that being said, it does give the movie some conflict and raises the stakes for Max's safe return home, despite his strong bond with these creatures.
Overall, this movie is, like the book, a portrait of childhood at its core. There's no talking down to the audience, but at the same time, it's more for nostalgic adults than kids. But, the adults that enjoyed the book will enjoy what Jones, Egger, Sendak, and this movie have to say. It also looks beautiful, with fantastic sets, creatures, and characters to ogle at. There's so much love and detail put into this movie that all that can be said is...well...
I'd eat this movie up, I love it so...even though Roger Ebert beat me to that, it's still true.