Movie review: 'Where the Wild Things Are' a crowning achievement

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 15, 2009 - 5:50 PM

'Where the Wild Things Are' turns a masterpiece of children's literature into cinema magic.

"Where the Wild Things Are" sets out in search of untamed beasts and returns with the Golden Fleece, a masterpiece of magical filmmaking. Although this is a narrative treatment of the classic children's bedtime book, the film, directed by Spike Jonze, is as inventive and enigmatic as a dream. It's thematically and psychologically rich yet presented in simple terms that children can intuitively understand.

In an era glutted with sanitized, prefabricated, computer-generated kids' stuff, this is an experience of sophisticated cross-generational appeal. It digs deep into childhood's bright, manic exuberance and also its confusion and gloom. It's the most unlikely film to come from a major studio this year, and one of the most affecting.

Young Max (Max Records, a fine naturalistic actor) is tied into the physical world as children are, and the film captures his environment with extraordinary sensual realism. The photography is attentive to muted earth tones, the rough texture of tree bark, the delicate granularity of ice crystals, the powdery residue of a fast-pitched dirt clod.

As in Maurice Sendak's little gold mine of a book, visual details tell the story. Max lives in a neighborhood where things are a little threadbare. Cars are rusty and kids go to school in cheery-looking but cheap snowflake sweaters. Father is vanished except for a bedside desk globe inscribed "To Max, Owner of This World. Love, Dad." Mom (kindly, stressed Catherine Keener) brings work home and knits her brows. His sister is moving on to a new world of teenage buddies and has no time for Max; she's always seen at a distance. Told to go play with friends, Max builds himself an igloo and has a one-sided argument with a fence.

Without handwringing dramatics, we understand this is one lonely kid. He just doesn't have the words or the maturity to express it.

He's most in command of his world in his wolf costume, roughhousing with the dog and blowing off steam. His timing isn't the best, however. When Mom has a new friend over for a wine and cheese date, Max climbs on the kitchen counter and commands, "Woman, feed me!" A full-blown tantrum follows. When Max, carried away, bites her shoulder, Records' expression is a scalding fusion of anger, shock and remorse.

He bolts from the house, runs to a park and begins a nighttime journey to a faraway island occupied by a handful of outlandish creatures. They are breaking apart their nests, arguing in the kind of half-understood terms a child might hear at night from the top of the stairs. True to Sendak's designs, the wild things are a mongrel mix of soothing ovals (round heads, chubby bellies) and spiky sharpness (their teeth, horns and claws are designed to do damage). Petulant one moment and giddy the next, they're as inconsistent and mysterious as ... well, people.

Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the script with Jonze, made his breakthrough with "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genuis," a memoir about becoming the official guardian of his orphaned 8-year-old brother at the age of 22. He clearly understands these issues inside and out. The dialogue is spare and touching, full of contradictory impulses.

It's not a great stretch to read the monsters as reflections of Max's unruly emotions and relationships. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is sensitive and angry. KW (Lauren Ambrose) is pulling away from the pack, like the increasingly distant females in Max's family. Goatlike Alexander (Paul Dano) is serious but ignored by the others. They're a mismatched group trying to form a family but working without instructions.

When Max arrives, some of the creatures see him as a snack, but he stares them down with tales of his magical powers. They proclaim him king. He designs a new fortress where they can all live together, leads them on foot races through forests and over sand dunes, and promises to make all the sadness go away.

Of course, even in dreams, this is a pledge too big for anyone to fulfill. Max's strange new friends enable him to understand the spiritual conflicts of life more clearly. The smile he bestows on his mother when he finally returns is a beautiful gift. As is the film.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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    ★★★★ out of four stars

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