“Where the Wild Things Are” is the story of a 9 year old boy, Max, who, when he gets frustrated with the way things are in his life, escapes to a fantasy realm where he is king. As such, it’s a lot like Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland any number of other children’s stories. The main difference here is that, while everyone is having a good time in Neverland, the Wild Things are moody and miserable, and Max has no idea how to help them. “You guys need a mommy,” he tells them. “I’m going home.”
But let’s talk about the positives. This is an absolutely stunning movie visually. The Wild Things, who are essentially giant Muppets with CGI faces, look and move and interact perfectly, seamlessly. The landscape and scenery work are fabulous, from the wild ocean Max sails across to vast deserts, mighty forests, and a giant fort made of sticks that Max and the Wild Things build together. Everything looks absolutely amazing. In a year of great-looking children’s films (“Coraline,” “Ponyo,” “Up”) “Where the Wild Things Are” may be the best-looking one yet.
And the opening scenes—the ones that take place in the “real world”—are pitch perfect, and capture the feeling of being a nine-year-old better than any I’ve seen in a long time. Max builds an igloo out of a snowdrift and is very proud of it, but his sister’s friends destroy it during a snowball fight. They’re not mean about it, they just don’t know how proud he is of his igloo, and they definitely don’t know what to do with his tears. So they run off, assuming, probably, that he’ll get over it, because kids cry and get over stuff all the time. And that’s why being nine is so terribly frustrating.
Later that night, Max acts out terribly, and it all just becomes too much. He runs off into the woods, leaving his perplexed, upset mother behind. He climbs into a tiny boat and sets sail for parts unknown. And that’s where the problems start.
I’ve heard other critics say, and would like to believe myself, that when Max goes to Where the Wild Things Are, he is going within himself, to deal with his own wildness. But this is problematic primarily (and this is my biggest beef with the movie) because the Wild Things don’t act like 9 year olds. They are petulant and moody, sarcastic and wildly emotional, destructive, threatening, hormonal, and most of the time overcome by feelings they don’t understand and are unable to express. In other words, they act like middle schoolers. Max ought to be in third grade; the Wild Things act like 7th or 8th graders.
Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini seems to be the unofficial leader of the Wild Things. He is a creature filled with incredible longings, and when things don’t go his way, he throws violent, blustery tantrums. Alongside him, thick or thin, is Douglas (Chris Cooper,) who seems more intellectual, and a little impatient with his friend’s outbursts. Judith(Catherine O’Hara) and Ira (Forrest Whitaker) are in love, and Judith loves to make idle threats and generally challenge authority. Alexander (Paul Dano) has a hard time getting anyone to listen to him, and seems to be secretly in love with Judith. KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose, in a performance that makes crystal clear why she was so great in “Six Feet Under” and hasn’t landed many adult roles since then,) is on the outs with the group, because she’s made some new friends, and Carol finds that threatening. (In one of the myriad bewildering and unexplained sequences in this film, KW’s friends are owls that she knocks out of the sky with rocks. They talk by chirping, and only some of the Wild Things can understand them.)
When Max meets the Wild Things, he declares himself a king, and makes up some stories about Vikings and magical powers, mostly to convince them not to eat him. They enthusiastically make Max their king, and he rules just as a 9 year old would: first, they’re going to run around and scream a lot, then collapse in a big pile and sleep, then get up and build the biggest best fort there ever was. And while things seem to be working at first, every endeavor, from an epic dirt-clod fight to the building of the fort, devolves into a real argument. Max always feels outside these arguments, unsure what the big deal is, as the Wild Things debate what exactly so-and-so meant by that, or whether stepping on someone’s head can be meant as a joke, or what the rules to the game they’re playing are, exactly. In short, they bicker and fight exactly like 13 year olds do when they’re playing games they used to play when they were nine.
When it becomes clear to everyone that they are just as miserable with Max as king as they were before he came, Max wisely decides it’s time to leave. “You need a mommy,” he tells them, and he’s exactly right; these adolescents need an adult to help them understand what they’re feeling, to find healthy ways to express those feeling, and, perhaps most of all, to assure them that they won’t feel like this forever. And I guess that’s the lesson in “Where the Wild Things Are:” kids, even older kids, need parents, as frustrating and infuriating and all around less-than-perfect as parents can be.
I’m not sure I would take kids to see “Where the Wild Things Are.” It’s a complicated movie, and even the ways it succeds are not likely to appel to anyone under the age of 13. A lot of kid’s movies attempt to appeal to adults at the same time; the best of them succeed. Here is a movie that is so busy appealing to adults, it forgets about the kids.