It is not the inner life of a child told from the maturity of an adult. It is not the sweeping epic the trailers make it out to be. And it surely does not live up to the innumerable expectations blooming from innumerable childhoods (and parenthoods, for that matter). As it ends up, Spike Jonze's "Where The Wild Things Are" is a just step forward for Jonze as a filmmaker. It is a flawed story interspersed with tiny moments of beauty and sadness that, despite its stumbles, touches on a feeling of loneliness rarely expressed with such soft reserve. It seems odd to say this about a movie populated with lumbering muppeteered beasts, but "Wild Things" is Jonze's least showy movie to date, and for the better.
The film begins with Max in the real world, bouncing between members of his family. Each character emerges as quickly as they disappear, from his dog to his sister to his mother and her boyfriend. If you are a glass-half-full kind of person, you would say that these scenes are measured perfectly to give you exactly what you need to know about Max and his life in a surprisingly short first act. If you are a glass-half-empty kind of person (as I tend to be with the scripts of Dave Eggers), you would say that these are not characters but vacant symbols of people written with too-broad strokes. And this is what I did say, but then my mistake was so simple I didn't even know I missed the point: of course the humans are less real than the Wild Things. Not for a single moment did I question the personalities, unfolding histories or dangers of the Things. And it is in them, obviously, that the movie shines.
If I have a lasting complaint with the film it is that the script encumbers itself a bit too much. A number of events and characters from the first act, the real world act, mirror those of the rest of the film just enough to draw attention away from the real strengths of Max's fantasy. A snowball fight in the first act becomes a dirt clod fight in the second, and we are encouraged, in a way, to connect the dots: is the furry-feathered Carol supposed to be Max? Is Judith supposed to be Max's mother? Then maybe Douglas is the estranged father ...
Every once in a while this one to one correspondence from the real world to the Wild Things pops up and detracts from the stronger characters. It is like we are being held at a distance from fully engaging them, and instead asked to tie them to an obviously less developed character in Max's family. The thought process this takes interferes with the emotional aspects, but isn't entirely overwhelming.
I think I will have to watch the film again to really give myself up to it. I left the theater feeling detached from the characters, but affected by the feelings. This is understandable, and maybe Jonze's greatest strength as a filmmaker. I don't know exactly what it is, but something he does taps me emotionally. I hoped I would connect more to directly to the film, but I enjoy where Jonze is heading. The script settles into predictable rhythms, but it is still a moving thing to watch, even from arm's length.