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Where the Wild Things Are (2009): ***

Directed by Spike Jonze

One adjective always comes to mind when I think about Spike Jonze's adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are: Thoughtful. This is a very thoughtful film.

This is a film about unhappy people who, because they're all children (and, in fact, are all the same person since they come from one person's imagination), are ill-equipped to find good solutions to their unhappiness, or even to figure out exactly why they're unhappy. They just know they are, and everything they try just serves as a temporary fix (if even that).

We know the general story from the book: young boy Max gets mad at his mom for curtailing his freedom and so imagines running away to an exotic locale filled with monsters who are actually a lot of fun. At first. Made their king, Max discovers that being in charge of a bunch of kids (which the Wild things essentially are) is more than just a barrel of laughs, so he returns home to allow himself to be taken care of.

A repeated theme in the movie is that things accidentally go just a bit too far. What starts out as fun repeatedly ends with someone getting hurt, either physically or emotionally (or both), because someone gets too caught up in the moment and doesn't think about the consequences of his actions. Another one is things not going to plan. Max makes grandiose plans with the Wild Things, involving a giant fortress and never-ending fun and togetherness and love. But these plans take actual work, and some Wild Things resent perceived favoritism, some get their feelings hurt by various events, and the whole plan just starts to fall apart and everyone starts getting disappointed.

The Wild Things themselves are extremely well done. Personality-wise, they're all various childhood archetypes, like the aggressive fun-lover who has anger management problems, or the unfortunate runt who never seems to catch a break and wouldn't really know what to do with one if he did catch it, or the preening girl who can only relate to other people by criticizing and being a downer. Everyone already knows these people, so it's very easy (and quick) to figure out the group dynamics.

Even more impressive to me, though, were the technical details. The Wild Things, thank Jeebus, were not computer generated. They were actually people in big-head suits... except for their faces. Just as computers wouldn't have been able to create such convincing, real monsters existing in a real space, a big-head suit just can't provide a dynamic and emotive enough face no matter how advanced its animatronics. Jonze and his special effects team wisely combine two technologies in order to get the best of both worlds, and the effect is absolutely, 100% seamless.

It's an interesting choice to change the setting from a lush jungle to a rather gloomy temperate forest. All the locations seem rather drab; there's a dank forest, an empty desert, and a dusty quarry.

I make the movie sound depressing. It really isn't. It's just achingly wistful. It's nostalgic for that knife's edge balancing point of childhood where things were magical and fun but could really be appreciated instead of just discarded in favor of the next fun thing. And it's realistic about that childhood. Max isn't preternaturally wise nor is he cloyingly sweet and stupid. He's just an unhappy kid who doesn't have the tools he needs to figure out what to do about it. And in his random, groping quest to have fun he finds more than he bargained for. And in the end he realizes that he just isn't ready to take care of himself yet, let alone a gaggle of other people.

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