I split this up, because I didn't want the review to just turn into a big defense for the film, but I still needed to get some anger out on people who still don't quite grasp the idea of film. So depending on whether you want a reasoned consideration of a really wonderful film or just some rare snark (in which case, skip to the bottom), go where ye may. Better yet, read it all. It's not that long.
See, the film has already come under fire for being too scary for children, too complex for children, too spare for anyone, too hipster-y, too juvenile, too unlikable.
All of which could easily mean it’s “unique,” which will always turn some section of people off. Whether they acknowledge it or not, most people want and even expect their films to meet certain guideposts, which this film resolutely does not do.
But it is, as far as I can remember, the most honest exploration of late childhood I’ve seen on film. The only other film I can think of that can go toe-to-toe with it is The Red Balloon, so you know…that’s pretty high praise.
It’s about loneliness. About being trapped. About sensing that people are supposed to have control over their destiny, and being unsure of why you do not. And more than a little angry about it. It’s about the need for acceptance, control, to be taken seriously, to be regarded more highly than any of your peers. It’s about what it feels like when you’re the coolest kid in the room. It’s about testing your boundaries. It’s about creating safe places, and the overwhelming emotion that comes when those are violated.
It’s without a doubt Spike Jonze’s finest work to date, in that, of his three films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation before this), it’s the most uniquely his. Before this, he found himself contending with, accommodating, and supporting Charlie Kaufman's vision, to the extent that one could wonder how far his own extended. But every inch of Where the Wild Things Are feels created; it feels new. Nothing is there "because it's in the book," the weakest excuse often given for poor decisions in adaptations. Everything is there because it should be.
It is a difficult film to explain, because, and I’ve long believed this about the book as well, it’s not about anything that “happens.” Not just that Max, the main character, doesn’t really travel to faraway lands and meet giant monsters, as we seem him do in the film. I also mean that this isn’t something Max actively imagined; at least not in full. This isn’t his fantasy or a dream he had after falling asleep. This is an exploration of the meeting place between Max’s conscious and subconscious, those things he’s aware of, has created, and wants, and those things he’s scared of, would rather avoid, and truths he wish were false but knows are not, and is starting to acknowledge. It’s the representation of Max starting to grow up.
I realize at this point that I’ve mostly just described the film, without giving much in the way of standard evaluation. Well, here it is – it does everything I noted above without ever coming right out and saying it. That’s an incredible accomplishment, and the result is a deeply moving, enthralling work of art that doesn't simply "speak to the child in all of us" (as though we were a completely other person when we were younger) - it speaks to the human experience.
Saying something is "too hipster" is not criticism. That doesn't actually mean anything.
If I hear one more person use the fact that a film, ANY film, has little to no "story" (especially because they always mean "narrative") as some form of negative criticism, I'm gonna explode. Film exists. It's an art form. It's not always going to be used for narrative purposes. Just like music isn't always written to tell a story. Sometimes it's there to express an emotion, a place, a state of mind, tell us about a person, or just to be God damned art. It's not always about PLOT.
I've read several claims that the film "fetishizes childhood." Anyone who makes that claim either a) didn't stay until the end, or b) wasn't actually watching the film or paying attention to the way it and Max progressed, because the film comes close to damning the way we behave as children. Dialogue isn't just there to explain a plot, it also informs the characters. Visually, even going beyond aesthetics, actors make certain expressions for a reason. It's all there to serve a larger purpose. Pay attention.
Oh, and if this "doesn't play to children," I feel so, so sorry for the overly-sheltered children of today. Is it scary? You bet. Is it sad? Absolutely. These are healthy emotions to feel. Never mind the strong central morals of the film, there is nothing in here unsuitable for a well-rounded kid in early grade school, and further, a lot that's really good for them. Just because it's a mature film doesn't mean it's too mature for kids.