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Where the Wild Things Are

(2009) *** 1/2 Pg
95 min. Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution. Director: Spike Jonze. Cast: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper.

/content/films/3603/1.jpgIn her 1974 essay “Family Structure and Feminine Personality,” Nancy Chodorow posited that maternal bonding and absent fathers lead boys to define their masculinity through traumatic separation and defensive individuation. At the time, five-year-old Adam Spiegel was just a few years off from becoming a child of divorce; now, he’s film director Spike Jonze, whose adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are projects childhood emotions onto a not-terribly inviting landscape and its monstrous denizens.

Maurice Sendak’s ten-sentence children’s book was always a sort of words-and-pictures psychodrama, the story of an Everyboy named Max who throws a tantrum and transforms his room into an island where he can romp with fellow “wild things.” As co-scripted by Jonze and literary sensation Dave Eggers, the film version of Where the Wild Things Are extrapolates that nine-year-old Max (Max Records) —a child of divorce, natch—sadly endures a lonely childhood: his pubescent sister has grown too cool to spend time with him, and his loving but frayed working mom (the always welcome Catherine Keener) has taken to inviting a new man (Mark Ruffalo) into the home.

Since Max can already feel his world growing colder, it’s something of an anti-climax when Max’s teacher informs him that the sun is slowly, inevitably dying. Donning his dirty terrycloth wolf suit, the proud uniform of his childishness (complete with whiskers, ears, and a tail), Max busts out his primal scream therapy: howling at the moon, jumping on the kitchen counter, and blurting to his mother, “Woman! Feed me!...I’ll eat you up!” Given a stronger motivation than spoiled farmgirl Dorothy Gale, Max runs away from home on a “Hero’s Journey” into his own mind, where his wish-fulfillment fantasy of unfettered play cannot wrestle free of deep-set social neuroses. Sure, no man is an island, but how about a boy?

In the wild, Max becomes the “king” of a dysfunctional family of monsters, voiced by familiar actors: Judith (Catherine O’Hara), KW (Lauren Ambrose), Ira (Forest Whitaker), Douglas (Chris Cooper), Alexander (Paul Dano), and the mercurial Carol (James Gandolfini), something of a father figure (and alter ego) to growing-boy Max. In these wild things, Max has conjured peers likewise grappling with separation anxiety and fear of social rejection; they’re all splinters of his troubled little boy psyche (with just a dash of Mom’s perspective). Records turns in fairly amazing work, thanks in no small part to Jonze’s ever-creative direction. The actors voicing the wild things physically performed their roles as a model for the actors who later donned the suits, while the expressive faces on the beasts owe to CGI.

Jonze and Eggers have pulled off a rare trick by fashioning not only an honorable take on a classic but slim children’s book, but also an adventurous art film made with studio dollars. It’s a fine conversation piece for gifted kids—assuming parents willing to talk to their kids about their feelings. It’s also a fascinating psychological study for adults looking back on the roiling emotions of childhood.

[The review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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