A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that director Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are isn't appropriate for younger kids, even those who adore the book (there's a big difference between looking at a beautifully illustrated children's story and watching a live-action movie full of sights and sounds that will probably scare the average 4-year-old). The movie explores mature themes of loneliness, insecurity, and fear of change, both within Max's human family and the one he finds on his adventure. The island that Max lands on can be a scary and dark place, and the Wild Things themselves aren't above threatening (repeatedly) to eat Max, as well as becoming hot-headed and destructive (and when a Wild Thing gets destructive, it can be quite intense). The movie also has a slower, dreamier feel than many other kids' movies, and relationships and storylines aren't always neatly resolved. There's some mild language ("damn," "stupid") and a quick glimpse of Max's mom and her boyfriend drinking wine and kissing, but otherwise the PG rating is due mostly to Max's occasionally frightful time with the mysterious Wild Things.
What's the story?
Director Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers' adaptation of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE fleshes out Maurice Sendak's picture book protagonist Max (Max Records) to provide a reason behind his wolf suit-wearing mischief. He's an imaginative kid with boundless energy. But when his mom (Catherine Keener) doesn't seem to have time for him, he snaps, tries to bite her, and runs away. Suburban woods lead him to a sailboat that heads straight to a mysterious island inhabited by Wild Things. Unlike in the book, each movie Wild Thing has a distinct name and personality: There's insecure Carol (James Gandolfini), sarcastic Judith (Catherine O'Hara), sweet Ira (Forest Whitaker), misunderstood Alexander (Paul Dano), wise Douglas (Chris Cooper), and loving KW (Lauren Ambrose). Max persuades the Wild Things not to eat him by claiming he's a king with special powers. At first ruling the island a joy -- "let the wild rumpus start!" -- but as time passes, Max begins to disappoint the dysfunctional monsters, and he eventually grows fearful that they'll realize he's just a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king.
Is it any good?
Usually, beloved children's books are adapted with a kiddie audience in mind, but this movie isn't for young kids. It's a leisurely paced, literary film that makes you reflect on the exuberance and sadness of being a child. The Wild Things are indeed a wild bunch -- they smash things and claim to have eaten all of their other kings -- but they're also a broody, sarcastic, touchy clan wrestling with jealousy (Carol hates that KW is friends with two owls, Terry and Bob), isolation (Alex feels ignored), and misunderstandings (KW wants everyone to get along). It's not all rumpus-making, sleeping in a pile, and dirt-clot fights for King Max.
Visually, Where the Wild Things Are is beautifully simple, whether it's a heartbreaking close-up of a teary-eyed Max or an expansive shot of the Wild Things' island. It's amazing how perfectly Sendak's monsters come to life and how perfectly newcomer Records plays the spirited and vulnerable Max. He truly shines, especially acting opposite Keener, Gandolfini, and Ambrose. And the excellent voice cast, who actually rehearsed together, makes you forget you're watching CGI-enhanced 9-foot puppets. The movie's evocative soundtrack, composed by Carter Burrell and Karen O. (frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) switches from playful to eerie to jubilant to frightening, and it's a spot-on accompaniment to Max's journey. This isn't a movie you cuddle with the kids over, the way you do with the book. It is, however, an artful, touching text on the magical but at times lonely nature of childhood.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what makes Max scared and angry in Where the Wild Things Are. Why does he get mad at his sister and his mom? What does he want from them? What does he learn about families from his time among the Wild Things?
Each of the Wild Things has a personality, opinions, and concerns. Are the Wild Things symbolic of different character traits? Kids: Which Wild Thing was the most relatable?
How does the movie compare to the book? How did the filmmakers change the story? Does an adaptation have to to translate exactly what's in a book to be faithful? How do you think the movie might be different if it were meant for younger kids?
- In theaters: October 16, 2009
- On DVD or streaming: March 2, 2010
- Cast: Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Max Records
- Director: Spike Jonze
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Fantasy
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Adventures, Book Characters, Misfits and Underdogs
- Run time: 100 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.