This film went down well with the critics, but failed at the box office. Budget: $100m. Gross takings: $75m (last time I looked). It's based on a children's book by Maurice Sendak, in case you didn't know. My memories of the original were that it had about ten pages and twenty words, so I was a little puzzled as to how it could become a movie.
Nevertheless in the 1980s Disney had considered adapting it, then in 2001 Universal bought the rights. It was going to be a CGI animated film under Disney animator Eric Goldberg, but then two years later had become a live-action project under Sendak's preferred director, Spike Jonze. It had to be live-action because having a real child alongside gigantic monsters is more dangerous and scary, you see. Universal got cold feet and Warner Bros took over, but for a while in 2008 even they wanted to reshoot the whole thing. Fair play to them, though. They sorted out their differences with Jonze and ended up giving him even more time and money to turn this children's book into what's not quite a children's film, but more precisely a film about children. Personally I can't believe that any other studio right now but Warner would have made this movie.
Me, I thought it was special. There isn't anything else like it out there and I'm sure it's going to become an iconic film for an entire generation. I don't know if I'd recommend it though, because everyone's going to have a personal reaction that won't necessarily be predictable. It's got no villain, no plot in the usual sense and a cast who spend 90% of the movie acting up like uncontrolled children. The Wild Things are basically Max himself. When he flees to the island, he's basically travelling inside his own head and entering a world ruled by children with the power and self-control of Ang Lee's Hulk. In trying to survive their behaviour, he's unwittingly dealing with himself... except that of course they're as bad as each other, so on becoming their king, all he does is end up getting them to do things like "jump on top of each other in a big pile" and "have a dirt clod fight".
This is a little disorientating, especially in a 101-minute movie. I can imagine some viewers not understanding why anyone should have wanted to make this in the first place, although I also suspect none of them will be small children. Its story development is all about the interactions of Max and the Wild Things, all of whom can be violently stroppy. This provides lots of parallels with Max's behaviour back home with his family. There's one conversation in particular that to me was the emotional core of the film. "They think I'm a bad person." "Are you a bad person?" "I don't know." There's also a theme of time passing and nothing lasting forever, as with the teacher telling his class that even the sun will die. Thus it's fascinating to see the subplot of James Gandolfini's Wild Thing being mad at Lauren Ambrose's because she keeps spending time with her new friends Bob and Terry. You could see this as being the equivalent of brother-sister, son-mother or even husband-wife conflicts, but in fact it's all of them. When you're six years old, what's the difference? With a Wild Thing, those things are all the same.
This movie is a unique study of childhood, in particular of a certain kind of angry, uncontrolled child whose actions aren't coming from the head. That's being underlined by a line of dialogue ("you're out of control") that's getting repeated to underline these parallels, even though I find that one of the few slightly false notes in the film. To me it sounds scripted rather than something I'd say to a real child. That's a hair-splittingly fine nitpick, though, and the only reason I even noticed it is because otherwise the film's so brutally honest. However that's how you or I might watch it. If you're six, this is simply the story of Max meeting cool monsters and trying to help them be friends with each other. There's an exhilaration to any scene in which Wild Things go bugnuts, which they do a lot. They can crack open cliffs, bring down trees and hurl themselves twenty feet into the air, so there's destructive potential here when they start throwing themselves around. Max should be dead, if only because at first they'd been planning to eat him. I saw this today in the cinema, so I can verify first-hand that this film will hold children's attention.
The movie's production side is flawless. I couldn't work out what I was looking at and it turns out that the Wild Thing suits were done by the Jim Henson company, but they have CGI faces. This works really well. The film perhaps looks a little goofy, especially when we meet Bob and Terry, but this just gives it more character since the Wild Things in motion are so unstoppable that they'd have been a blast even with 1960s BBC visual designs up there. Keeping Maurice Sendak's original designs was absolutely the right decision. The film also needed the immediacy of practical effects, while the terrain on the Wild Things' island is wonderful because it's real. They just went to Australia and scouted for woods, sand dunes, beaches, etc.
I also need to praise Max Records, who plays Max. (Is that his real name?) I thought he was astonishing, never putting a foot wrong despite the fact that he's on-screen pretty much throughout, nine years old and the only human for almost all the film. Warner Bros submitted him for the Best Actor category in the 2009 Oscars and I think that's a fair call. Obviously you don't need me to tell you that James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, etc. are good as the voices of the Wild Things, though.
This isn't a movie for everyone, but it's going to be a landmark one. In terms of long-term impact, it's going to be somewhere between Labyrinth
and Peter Pan. (I mean the archetype, not any single interpretation.) There's no way of knowing how it'll hit any given person, or what emotions it might stir up. I'm also amazed that Hollywood turned Sendak's book into a film and kept it this pure, rather than burying it in subplots like those Dr Seuss adaptations with Jim Carrey. This movie is both unique and, for what it is, perfect.