Childhood stories are sacred. We protect the things we feel most nostalgic about, and that goes for movies, comics and anything we grew up with. So when esteemed indie director Spike Jonze took on the project of adapting the Maurice Sendak's childhood epic of Where the Wild Things Are, fans of both Jonze and the classic childhood storybook were both very nervous. How could you adapt a movie some 50 years old from when it was originally written into a full-length movie? This is a 40-page book with very few words and a consistently inspired imagery that propels young readers or parents of young readers to become enveloped in this world that Sendak has poured so much imagination into. So why would Spike Jonze want to adapt this into a live action Hollywood film in 2009, to inevitable opposition?
Spike Jonze was considered a visionary for his quirky and surreal work on Adaptation with two Nicolas Cage's and Being John Malkovich a frequently subversive film that would make the Criterion Collection catalogue. While he worked on other projects, including involving himself in the film and TV Jackass series, he wouldn't establish himself as a director outside of a few esteemed releases over the course of some thirty years. This makes the interest in picking a staple of literary fiction as intentional as it was for Jonze, being that he had such a selective body of work. What would stand out from the rest of his work would may be the actual involvement with Maurice Sendak in the choice of adapting the thought un-filmable project, originally poached in the 1980s. It is said behind the scenes that..."Jonze kept in close consultation with Sendak throughout the process, and the author approved creature designs created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop". It was with this participation that enhanced the authenticity of the production, and the hype for the final product. So what did we get with this mixture of production and talent?
Spike Jonze chooses to take an interesting approach to this story that both expands upon and exists within the universe of the original story. The character of Max is played brilliantly by Max Records, who inhabits the anger, loneliness and wonder of a truly great king. The movie explores his lonely sense of isolation of a kid desperate to make friends, while simultaneously rejected by the strangers who enter the life of those he holds most closely. So as the famously recreated story goes, Max goes on an adventure. To where the wild things are. And when he arrives, he is king. This is his world, he is supported by those as wild as he is, as adventurous and carefree as he can be, without the pressure of the world and the strangers who want to change it. The exploration of this journey is shot through the golden-hour imagery of perfectly angled and formatted shots in the mountainous and forestry of Jonze's vision.
The setting of this film does as much justice as it possibly can to the imagery of the source material, and lands pretty darn close. The world is unrecognizable and exists in a sense of make-believe. It reminds me of the forest behind the dumpsters in my father's apartment complex, full of complexity and unrecognizable one day to the next. This effected me in a way it might affect someone differently. It takes different age groups and up-bringings to truly approach this movie in each of our own unique ways.
The soundtrack of this movie certainly does not disappoint with Karen O, of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, giving her solo talent to an entirely original soundtrack composed with the help of the director. It's such an imaginative and lived in soundtrack the film feels empty without its presence, and listening to the soundtrack feels un-satisfying without revisiting the movie. It's a very musical production, right down to the rumpuses that occur; the movie is as much its soundtrack as its animated and puppeteered imagery. All this comes together to a truly childlike engineered project of young rebellion and purpose in a make-believe world that doesn't have to abide by the standards of the cold, adult world we are forced to grow into.
So why didn't it succeed? The movie fell well under its 100 million dollar budget making a conclusive 77.2 million dollar box office income, and overall receiving a slightly more than positive 73% Rotten Tomatoes score, and a lackluster 57% audience score as of 2020. Where the film alienated audiences was not just in the overall expectations people had for the final project of a childhood phenomenon. For some parents who grew up from the book, it was difficult to translate that to screen, with some of the creatures and visuals as scary as it was. Some were swept up with the childlike wonder and nostalgia of the movie and its mood, but it was a hard mood to mass market to a mainstream audience. It was a risk by the studios and by Sendak and Jonze. On top of having some truly scary visuals, it had the difficulty of balancing a film on a small work of fiction, with 40 sentences total. For some the movie felt stretched thin. For others it felt fully immersed and explored. Despite the mixed audience reviews, the movie would go on to win some awards and be one of the most visually arresting movies of the decade.
So why did we forget about it? Maybe because the cast of characters that rock the film are masked in visual effects. Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper and Paul Dano quietly compel us into loving the creatures for their peculiarities and distinct flaws, but what's truly amazing is James Gandolfini. He is the gentle giant we always knew he was in later roles past The Sopranos and exists as a beautifully complex creature, one who desires most of what the audience desires, kids or adults, in our own world. Purpose, respect, validation. To feel angry with a purpose. We all get to feel angry. That's the point. Maybe it takes a movie like this to remind us that our childlike feelings are as valid as our adult ones are. Let's have a rumpus together.