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Wild Things Come Alive

Maurice Sendak first entered my world when as a young girl my father read me the story of Max and the Wild Things.
The book’s evocative (Caldecott Medal-winning) illustrations and terse, lyrical narrative captured my imagination and transported me “off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.”
I loved holding the book and turning its pages. I loved the book’s smell too, all sweet and papery. I loved the ruminations that Maurice Sendak’s world invited me to entertain, and when I played in my backyard play house, sometimes I was Max (maybe Maxine) sailing off on my own wild adventures.
My parents took me to see Wild Things, the opera: Oliver Knussen’s Opus 20 based on a libretto by Maurice Sendak. The show was a two-part performance of Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! Seeing the gigantic Wild Things lumbering about on stage thrilled me, even if I had to look through binoculars. The music, however, not so much.
When I learned that director Spike Jonze had set out to render a film adaptation of Sendak’s masterpiece, I felt aprehensive. Nothing short of cinematic perfection would serve, I felt, to capture the book’s brilliantly succinct narrative and scratchy illustrations.
Remembering the Wild Things opera, I felt more nervous still, because while there are many ways to ruin a good book, there are very few ways to capture it well on film.
Spike Jonze nailed it. Mostly.
The film, like the book, opens with a rambunctious Max chasing his dog around the house. Child actor Max Records, 12, brings the Max character to life beautifully.
Max, like many nine-year-olds, is madly imaginative but also very sensitive. He instigates a snowball fight with his older sister and her friends that ends with Max in tears. One of the friends collapses Max’s igloo with him in it.
Max’s single mother (Catherine Keener) lives a frazzled life. Work, home and a budding romance keep her up late and spread thin. Max clamors for attention. She rebuffs him. Max calls from his upstairs room that he has built a fort, no, a rocket ship that is about to take off.
“Want me to save you a seat?” he calls out. No answer.
There are also poignantly tender moments. Max’s tired out mom says to Max, who lays on the floor under her computer desk, that she could really use a story. Max launches into a tale about vampires and skyscrapers with legs. She records his words on her computer while he dictates from his spot at her feet.
The only glipse we get of Max’s father is a globe with a small placard on it that reads, “To Max, owner of this world, Love Dad.”
When the boyfriend comes to dinner and Max gets slighted once again, he becomes defiant. He stands on the table in his wolf suit and shouts, “Woman, feed me!” Max’s flustered mom tries to subdue him, but Max bites her shoulder and bolts outside.
Wild music with driving guitar riffs chases Max through the night into a foresty harbor where he climbs aboard his boat and sails and sails until he reaches an untamed rocky shoreline. He meets the Wild Things in a shadowy wood. Their huge fires burn beyond a clearing, and the Wild Things are busy smashing their circular stick houses for fun.
The Wild Things, whose mundane names (Judith, Carol, KW, Bob and Terry) and very un-beastlike voices that give them a surprisingly human feel, are a seamless amalgamation of giant puppet created by Jim Henson’s studio and CGI rendering. When the Wild Things threaten to eat Max, he invokes his magical powers and his ability to conquer Vikings. When he tells them to be still, they are still. They make him their king, and for once, Max is the center of somebody’s universe.
Max calls for a wild rumpus–running, crashing, leaping screaming, and finally falling into a huge, contented heap of fur and flesh with Max tucked into the center.
But fantasy worlds cannot entirely dispel childhood’s anxieties. Max discovers that he rules quirky, quarrelsome creatures that very much resemble facets of his own inner life and his relationships with his family members. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the erstwhile leader of the Wild Things, wants Max to create a place where “only the things you want to happen happen,” and if those things do not happen, Carol threatens to eat his own feet off.
Here the plot becomes diffused amid dirt clod wars (how I remember those from my childhood!) and angsty dialogue. The movie’s narrative lacks uniform directionality and plods toward a somewhat wimpy climax. Visually, however,the film is stunning, drawing from a rich pallette of yellows, oranges and browns. Jonze had many scenes shot on Australia’s southern coast at the time of day when the sun hangs low on the horizon and casts a warm glow on everything it touches. It’s a fitting tribute to the book’s award winning images.
The film hits the high points of Sendak’s narrative. When Max announces that he will leave, the Wild Things entreat him not to go; “I’ll eat you up, I love you so.”

Wild Things
takes childhood objects and experiences–sticks, dirt clods, teeth falling out, bonfires–as peripheral metaphors, but leaves it to viewers to decide what they signify.
There are really two stories in Sendak’s book and Jonze’s adaptation: the story of strained family relationships and that of huge furry creatures with whom Max can stay only fleetingly. If the story has a thesis, it may be in the fact that what Max escapes from, he is ultimately drawn back to.
Racing back home through darkened streets, Max finds his mother, exhausted, worried, waiting for him with a bowl of soup.
It’s still hot.

Emily Lee writes from Greenfield, Wisconsin. She is the proud mother of two adorable wild things.

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