I too adore Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. It’s a fantastic, strange, mournful look at childhood loneliness and the imagination that fills in the cracks. The music is wonderful and Max Records is a revelation. His performance is easily one of my favourite kid performances of all time. I really think he nailed that character in a way that is almost overwhelmingly powerful. The decision to go with actors in costumes with some puppetry involved to bring the titular Wild Things to life is a wonderful way to go and probably helped Records’ performance as well, giving him something tangible to act with. I know there were rumours of lots of problems with the costumes and Jonze’s decision to go that route, but it all paid off beautifully in the end.
Most of all, I think Jonze’s decision to go with a rougher aesthetic works wonders. Shooting in actual locations as opposed to soundstages with exaggerated sets that could mirror the look of Sendak’s illustrations is a brave and brilliant choice. Sendak’s drawings are gorgeous and haunting and could also work well in a movie, but the route that Jonze takes ends up elevating the material for me. I feel like he made a very adult movie about childhood, but not in a way that will alienate kids so much as respect them and not pander to them, two things that get at the very heart of Sendak’s approach to children’s lit. Jonze’s movie feels like an adult looking back on childhood, but in a way that can still access the reckless imagination and zaniness of a child’s mind.
Shooting at the real locations grounds Max’s adventure so that the danger and adventure still feels consequential and perilously challenging as a result. By avoiding some of the more fantastical visual flourishes that could have been afforded by a set-based approach, Jonze taps into something more primal about Max’s loneliness and fears. He gives it all weight, the kind of melancholic ache that a child can feel and an adult can articulate.
By taking these artistic liberties in the adaptation, I think Jonze ends up crafting the definitive companion piece for Sendak’s book.