Spike Jonze's heavily anticipated, hipster Where the Wild Things Are, from a screenplay by Jonze and Dave Eggers, succeeds in nothing so much as the clarifying the substance of the director's authorship, thanks largely to Charlie Kaufman's absence in the film's pre-production (marking a first in the director's three feature career). Whereas both of Jonze's previous films supplied a distinctive sensibility and mood, via principally their respective mise-en-scène's, while also maintaining a strongly classical shot/reverse-shot program, their thematic content and narrative structures have remained somewhat indistinguishable with those Kaufman, especially following the latter's collaborations with Michel Gondry and his own, archly reflexive, miserablist Synecdoche, New York (2008). However, with Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze develops the unique specificity of his own work, procuring another embedded fictional world that is nevertheless the inverse of his prior effort, Adaptation. (2002): rather than life following fiction, fiction very much models itself after life in Jonze's Maurice Sendak update.
Straightforwardly, Jonze's film patterns itself after The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming and King Vidor, uncredited, 1939), replete with an unappealing real-world frame and an embedded, fantastic world-within-the-world (though the technicolor Oz is a far cry from Where the Wild Things Are's arid, leafless fictional world - itself not that different from the latter's snowbound reality). As in Oz, those that populate the outer world come to inhabit the second, albeit in a series of doubles that again finds resonance with both Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation. In Jonze's world-within-the-world, Max (Max Records) is doubled by Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), while sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) and mother (Catherine Keener) are both refracted through KW (Lauren Ambrose). In each of the three pairings with Max/Carol, tension is wrought through new relationships that leave Max/Carol displaced.
This doubling also extends itself into an additional world-within-the-world that Carol has constructed as an escape from his flawed fictional realm. In among the strongest of the film's moments, Carol invites Max to poke his head through a hole in the miniature built environment that immerses the latter in his creation. Max is accordingly compelled to suggest that they attempt this utopia, which results, finally, in the same imperfections that the two embedding worlds share. As such, Jonze and Eggers confirm the impossibility of full escape from the world's problems, emphasizing that there is the same hurt and sorrow in children's games as there is in the non-fiction world beyond.
Ultimately, Where the Wild Things Are establishes a clear perspective on the world, which the filmmakers universalize through the tripled worlds that emit some form of hurt and suffering, brought on perhaps through the contemporary break down of the family that is very different than Sendak's parable of boyhood nature. (In this regard, Jonze's film is not child friendly, exactly.) Where the Wild Things Are also secures perspective on the visual level: from the film's opening passage, the camera tightly frames Max, procuring a visual strategy that leads to a strong identification with the child to match the narrative's filter. Cut to the original music of Karen O., Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord further register this mood in typically pale (winter) sunlight, often flaring on the camera lens, and star or fire-lit nocturnal images.
While it remains to be said that much of the film does suffer from its lackadaisical narrative structure, post-"Wild Rumpus," Where the Wild Things Are again, at the very least, introduces a clear world view to match its strong sense of narrational perspective, effected on both the levels of the story and through the film's framing strategies. And it does so in a system of doubling that minimally clarifies the director's authorial identity. For this writer at least, the auteur who emerges falls fairly decisively between Gondry above - thanks to the latter's continued interest in bringing cinema in line with the visual arts, as in The Science of Sleep (2006) ,which it is worth noting possesses substantial affinities with Jonze's latest - and Kaufman below, due in his case to the non-generalizable quality of the misery articulated in the director's feature debut. Where the Wild Things Are makes a case for its pain (plausibly imported into the life of childhood play) whereas Synecdoche, New York narcissistically assumes that the despair felt by its maker is shared the world over.