It is often said that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a children's novel that adults can enjoy, while The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an adult novel that children can enjoy. This statement in itself constitutes a form of elitism. Just because Huck Finn is a better, richer novel than Tom Sawyer, it must be presumed that the second story must not have been truly intended for children. This idea rears its ugly head in the discussion of family films as well, as poorly made family films are often labeled 'just for kids', while superior family entertainment is often accused of being secretly made for adults. The very idea of high-quality entertainment that is specifically directed at children seems to be some kind of oxymoron in the critical community. I have no idea for whom Spike Jonze crafted Where the Wild Things Are, but the film is a very much a high-quality children's movie.
A token amount of plot: Coping with his parents' divorce and having few friends, Max (Max Records) has taken to dealing with his pain by acting out in a somewhat animalistic fashion. After an argument with his mother (Katherine Keener), Max runs away and sails off to another land, a truly wild place where the animal inhabitants decide to make Max their king. But Max quickly realizes that being a ruler of such an untamed world may be more complicated that he realized.
Technically, the film is a glorious achievement. More or less eschewing CGI, director Spike Jonze creates his fantasy creatures the old-fashioned way, with puppeteers in costumes and animatronics. By having real costumes and thus the illusion of real monsters, the film reminds the viewer how much more powerful an image is when you can actually believe your own eyes. While the vocals are provided by name actors, the most emotional moments often come from the silent facial work of the 'wild things,' a staggeringly lifelike effect that makes the viewer forget that they are watching special effects and allows them to simply marvel at the performances of these non-existent creatures. Needless to say, the both gritty cinema vérité shooting and editing style and glorious fantastical compositions look even more striking in the IMAX format, where this world literally envelops you in its dreamlike haze.
Visual wonderment aside, the film does suffer a bit in the second act. Once the fantasy world is solidly introduced, we do little but wait for the third-act conflicts to raise their ugly heads. But the lack of incident in the second act sets you up for the genuinely powerful conclusion. The emotions in this film are shockingly raw for a children's adventure story, and there is a certain primal fury lurking just underneath the surface. So while children may be upset by the emotional violence at play in this story, the film will surely play as a healthy outlet for youthful frustration, as well as a cornerstone for any number of discussions about the burden of childhood and the complications in the 'real world'. The finale is both uplifting and heartbreaking, I was sincerely moved.
I have not read the original Maurice Sendak book in twenty-years, so I cannot say how faithfully his vision was executed. But the film is a stirring and often powerful meditation on the painful process of growing up. The film quickly becomes a skewered variation on The Wizard of Oz, where the hero learns to both appreciate what he has in the real world and sympathize with those entrusted with his care. The creatures that Max meets are not literal fantasy translations of the people in his life, but the problems that they are dealing strike a chord with the young adventurer. With the roles reversed and Max now burdened with being the emotional caregiver, he realizes the difficulty of being all things to all creatures. At its core, Where the Wild Things Are is a story of a young boy who takes a first step towards manhood by learning empathy.
While the picture deals with issues that are somewhat unusual for a would-be family film, it is absolutely appropriate for children. Spike Jonze has crafted a fable that resembles a childhood daydream, but with the messy complications of human existence. It is serious without being dark, it is moving without being a downer. It is a flawed but compelling adventure parable that is occasionally magical. Where the Wild Things Are is a fine film, no matter how we choose to classify it.