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Review – Where The Wild Things Are

Click poster for more info.

Click poster for more info.

Starring Max Records, Catherine Keener and the voice of James Gandolfini. Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language. 101 minutes.

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.

Have you ever had a child tell you a story? Was it a sharply-etched anecdote or was it a meandering narrative where this happened and then that happened and then something else happened, with perhaps no real point at all? Spike Jonze has given us a dreary expansion of Maurice Sendak’s childhood staple of a picture book WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, expanding something you would read in less than five minutes to more than twenty times that length. The result may be arty enough for some, but it’s going to be the odd child who doesn’t start getting as fidgety as the film’s hero.

As in the book, Max (Max Records) is a boy who has a temper tantrum and is sent to his room. In the film, he runs away – instead of having his room transform – and he ends up on an island with the “Wild Things.” These are monsters as only Sendak could draw them, at once frightening and cuddly. The realization of these creatures into three-dimensional characters owes a lot to animatronics and a bit more to the actors who voice them, including James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper.

Once Max is on the island, though, several problems arise. First, there’s no coherent narrative. It’s simply a series of incidents that we know will ultimately end with Max returning home. Watching them build a fort or have a “dirt clod” war is not very engaging. Second, Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord have chosen to try to recreate Sendak’s drawings with a very limited color scheme, mostly washed-out greens and browns. There are times you think you’re watching a black-and-white movie. What is engaging on the page doesn’t necessarily work on the big screen.

Worst of all, the monsters spend most of the film complaining and making empty threats. In a picture book, the idea that these monsters are Max’s counterparts is clever. In a long movie, it is like babysitting for a bunch of brats who are indistinguishable from one another. A few are hairy whiners, another one is a hen-like whiner, and let’s not forget the whining goat monster. Some adults may see this as a nightmarish vision of their own childhood, but it’s hard to imagine real children being taken by these characters.

Dull, drab, and unengaging, this is less a flight of fancy than a look at how difficult it is to be a kid, and that being with other kids – even if they’re oversize monsters – without adult supervision isn’t an improvement. Ironically, the story this echoes is not Sendak’s 1963 picture book, but a movie that came out that same year based on a far darker adult novel, “Lord Of The Flies.” While “Where The Wild Things Are” never gets quite that pessimistic about the human condition, it is a depressing exercise that will likely bore some children and leave others upset and confused. While not quite the horror show that the movie of “The Cat In The Hat” turned out to be, this is a far cry from feel-good family entertainment.•••

Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Film critic, author, lecturer.

9 responses »

  1. I would agree that no, this movie probably doesn’t qualify as “feel-good family entertainment.” But maybe it wasn’t intended to be? It’s not an accident that this feels like a movie about “how difficult it is to be a kid.” I think that as a portrayal of the confusion, discomfort and sometimes terror of childhood, Where the Wild Things Are is a remarkably successful film. And that rambling, child-like narrative structure that you mention was part of what I thought made it so effective. Many children probably wouldn’t enjoy this film, but as an adult who was a child once, it rang true for me.

    Being a kid is *scary*, I seem to remember. And boring, sometimes, and a little isolating, but with periods of great excitment. I’m not so sure I would want to do it again.

    Which is exactly how I felt about this movie, but that didn’t stop me from thinking, as I walked out of the theatre, that this was a genuinely good (if problematic) film. I’m not taking issue with your review at all; I just find the polarizing effect of all these factors kind of interesting. I thought it succeeded for exactly the same reasons that you think it failed.

    As a side note, I saw this in a theatre full of kids under ten. They probably made up a third of the audience. And I don’t know if you could say they were enjoying it, exactly — I didn’t ask them, and frankly this movie would have made me pee my pants when I was eight — but I do know I’ve never seen such a young audience sit so absolutely quietly. Whatever the movie’s flaws, there’s something extremely compelling about it, and it seemed like the kids got that, too.

    (I do take issue with the word “drab,” though. I’d watch this movie again for the cinematography alone. Did you *see* those sand dunes? Gorgeous.)

  2. You’ve obviously never had children. I went with my son and a gang of 5-year-olds and they related to the Monsters as if they were their own friends – and children do tell long meandering stories – that’s exactly what they do. Anyway, to each their own.

  3. I just saw this with my two sons, 10 and 6. The six year old pronounced the movie the saddest he had ever seen, but one of the best. The 10 year old said, “I always want to build a fort like that… they did all the stuff that I do in my bedroom and you tell me not to”…. like fighting, throwing pillows, taking things a bit too far until someone’s feelings get hurt… or someone isn’t listened to.

    Spike Jonze made this from a kids point of view. It made me long to relate to my kids better because it reminded me of all of the splendor of possibility that makes up a kid’s world, and all of the sadness at leaving it behind.

    And no, it is not “feel good family entertainment” — and thank god for that. Too much candy-coated BS out there.

  4. I agree that the plot in some ways mirrors Lord of the Flies. My problem with this review is that you seem to be starting from the premise that darkness is necessarily a bad thing, and that this movie should have been, by default, “feel good.” Lord of the Flies changed my world view as a young boy. Perhaps this movie will have the same effect on a new generation.

  5. I really wish this movie was not marketed for kids. It is dark, depressing and, as a social worker, I felt like I was at work watching this. Felt bad for my 8 year old with me.

  6. i just saw this movie with my son and his friend and i have to say i did not like it and feel tricked that i believed this to be a children’s movie. i seems to me that it did more to me to teach children how not to act. like the “war” to solve problems and the rage issues. most children…thank god… do not have the manic, anger, explosive,and disructive behavior that the two main charactures seemed to have. i can’t say that a lesson would be learned because when he finally go home his mother fell asleep? hello i just had to say i hated this movie in premise…the sad animals things…the behavior this child showed it made me sad and more afraid that it is becoming the norm. oh and i did feel tricked by ‘bridge to tarabithia’ also but that was sad in another way and not at all a children’s movie.

  7. I felt tricked because the trailer made it out to be a much more exciting film. Instead I felt equal parts depressed and confused. My 8 year old said “Why is it so sad?”

    Yes, the character in the book was sad, but this boy in the movie is verging on psychotic! They spent NO time developing the characters, I felt no attachment to any of them. Max, his mother, the monsters. And at times felt awkward, especially when a monster is jealous that his girlfriend is moving out to live with owls. WTF?

    So sad that my whole family was really looking forward to seeing this and wasted what precious entertainment budget we have on it.

  8. Daniel M. Kimmel

    I’ve had my say on the movie and will let it stand on its own. I wanted to add something about my philosophy of reviewing that people may find helpful in reading my reviews. My goal is to impart information about the film so that even if you disagree with my opinions, you can get some help deciding as to whether *you* will enjoy the film. Several of the people writing to defend the film don’t dispute what I say about it (much) but simply disagree with my opinion. And I’m fine with that. If you look at the percentages of critics at Rotten Tomatoes (something thrown at me when I go against the popular tide) I note that no movie gets a 100% rating. Even the most popular movies have their detractors and it is the rare bad movie that can’t find someone to defend it.

    But I will add that I am a father, and — personally — I would consider taking my daughter to this movie to be a form of child abuse. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

  9. I can honestly say, this movie reminded me of what it was like to be a kid more effectively than any film I’ve seen in my adult life (I’m 24). It seems to me that this movie has drawn a lot of criticism for not depicting childhood the way adults would like to remember it. Childhood fantasies, regardless of how we’d like to romanticize them now, were not simply bouts of pure escapism filled with vibrant cartoon colors and straightforward problems with easy solutions. Max’s imaginary world is realistic because his wildest fantasies stem from and reflect the most basic problems of childhood: a sense of powerlessness, a severely limited perspective on the world, a confused sense of morality, the feeling of being an outsider, the conflict between one’s own selfishness and the desire to please others, and the feeling (knowledge?) that everyone around you is refusing to understand these problems.

    The imaginary island is “too drab” only if you want to believe that our imaginations played out like a Pixar movie, but whose childhood fantasies weren’t simply hyperreal iterations of the real world? Some have complained that the characters are poorly defined and developed, but I personally had no problem understanding and differentiating between them: they’re the character types I would have made up as a kid, and they’re developed in the way that I would have developed them. For kids who have been conditioned to enjoy only the most hyperactive of entertainment and for adults who don’t remember how their minds used to work, this is probably not a suitable movie. For the rest of us, it’s not only captivating from front to back, it may well be the most realistic movie to have come out in a long whil.


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