Where the Wild Things Are (film)

Where the Wild Things Are

The Wild Thing Carol towering over a small boy named Max, in a wolf suit.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Spike Jonze
Produced by Tom Hanks
Gary Goetzman
Maurice Sendak
John Carls
Vincent Landay
Screenplay by Spike Jonze
Dave Eggers
Based on Where the Wild Things Are
by Maurice Sendak
Starring Max Records
Catherine Keener
Mark Ruffalo
Lauren Ambrose
Chris Cooper
James Gandolfini
Catherine O'Hara
Forest Whitaker
Music by Karen O
Carter Burwell
Cinematography Lance Acord
Edited by Eric Zumbrunnen
James Haygood
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release dates
  • October 13, 2009 (2009-10-13) (New York City)
  • October 16, 2009 (2009-10-16) (United States)
  • December 3, 2009 (2009-12-03) (Australia)
  • December 17, 2009 (2009-12-17) (Germany)
Running time
104 minutes
Country Australia
United States[1]
Language English
Budget $100 million[2]
Box office $100.1 million[2]

Where the Wild Things Are is a 2009 fantasy drama film directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Jonze and Dave Eggers, it is adapted from Maurice Sendak's 1963 children's book of the same name. It combines live-action, performers in costumes, animatronics, and computer-generated imagery (CGI). The film stars Max Records, and features the voices of James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, and Chris Cooper. The film centers on a lonely nine-year-old boy named Max who sails away to an island inhabited by creatures known as the "Wild Things," who declare Max their king.

In the early 1980s, Disney considered adapting the film as a blend of traditionally animated characters and computer-generated environments, but development did not go past a test film to see how the animation hybridizing would result.[3] In 2001, Universal Studios acquired rights to the book's adaptation and initially attempted to develop a computer-animated adaptation with Disney animator Eric Goldberg, but the CGI concept was replaced with a live-action one in 2003, and Goldberg was dropped for Spike Jonze. The film was co-produced by actor Tom Hanks through his production company Playtone and made on an estimated budget of $100 million.[4] Where the Wild Things Are was a joint production between Australia, Germany, and the United States, and was filmed principally in Melbourne.[5]

The film was released on October 16, 2009, in the United States, on December 3 in Australia, and on December 17 in Germany. The film was met with mostly positive reviews and appeared on many year-end top ten lists. The film was released to DVD and Blu-ray on March 2, 2010.


The film begins with Max, a lonely nine-year-old boy[6] with an active imagination whose parents are divorced, wearing a wolf costume and chasing his dog. His older sister, Claire, does nothing when her friends crush Max's snow fort (with him inside) during a snowball fight. Out of frustration, Max messes up her bedroom and destroys a frame that he had made for her. At school, Max's teacher teaches him and his classmates about the eventual death of the sun. Later on, his mother, Connie, invites her boyfriend Adrian to dinner. Max becomes upset with his mother for not coming to the fort he made in his room. He wears his wolf costume, acts like an animal, and demands to be fed. When his mother gets upset, he throws a tantrum and bites her on the shoulder. She yells at him and he runs away, scared by what has transpired. At the edge of a pond, Max finds a small boat that he boards.

The pond soon becomes an ocean. Max, still in his wolf suit, eventually reaches an island. There, he stumbles upon a group of seven large, monstrous creatures. One of them, Carol, is in the middle of a destructive tantrum (caused by the departure of a female Wild Thing named K.W.) while the others attempt to stop him. As Carol wreaks havoc Max tries to join in on the mayhem, but soon finds himself facing the suspicious anger of the Wild Things. When they contemplate eating him, Max convinces them that he is a king with magical powers capable of bringing harmony to the group. They crown him as their new king. Shortly after, K.W. returns and Max declares a wild rumpus, in which the Wild Things smash trees and tackle each other.

The Wild Things introduce themselves as Carol, Ira, Judith, Alexander, Douglas, the Bull, and K.W. Soon, they all end up piling on one another before going to sleep, with Max at the center. Carol takes Max on a tour of the island, showing him a model he built depicting what he wishes the island looked like. Inspired by this, Max orders the construction of an enormous fort, with Carol in charge of construction. When K.W. brings her two owl friends Bob and Terry to the fort, a disagreement ensues, as Carol feels they are outsiders (Max had said earlier that if any outsiders entered the fort, they would "have their brains automatically cut out"). To release their frustrations, Max divides the tribe into "good guys" and "bad guys" for a dirt clod fight, but Alexander is hurt during the game. After an argument between K.W. and Carol, K.W. leaves once again.

Max finds Alexander alone in the fort and has a conversation with him. Alexander reveals that he always suspected that Max is not a king with magical powers, but warns him to never let Carol know. Soon enough, at pre-dawn, Carol throws another tantrum — this time, about the fort, K.W.'s absence, and the eventual death of the sun (which Max had talked to Carol about earlier in the film). When Carol gets angry with Max for not doing a good job as a king, Douglas tries to explain to him that he's "just a boy, pretending to be a wolf, pretending to be a king", thus exposing the truth to the rest of the Wild Things. Carol becomes enraged and ends up ripping off Douglas' right arm (though only sand pours out of the wound). Then he chases Max into the forest and attempts to eat him. Max is saved by K.W., who hides him in her stomach. Max listens as Carol and K.W. have an argument over Carol's misbehavior. After Carol leaves, K.W. explains that their lives are difficult, with Carol's tantrums only making it worse. Max realizes what his mother is going through, and decides to leave the island and head home.

Max finds the crushed remains of Carol's model island (presumably destroyed by Carol himself in a rage) and leaves a token of affection for him to find (a letter C inside a love-heart made of twigs). He finds Carol and tells him he is going home because he is not a king. The other Wild Things escort Max to his boat. Carol runs to join them after finding Max's token and arrives in time to see him off. He starts to howl and Max howls back, then all the other Wild Things join in. Carol looks at K.W. and she smiles kindly at him. Returning home, Max is embraced by his distraught mother, who gives him a bowl of hot soup, a piece of cake and a glass of milk and sits with him as he eats. He watches as she falls asleep.



Suit performers



Where the Wild Things Are started its development life in the early 1980s, originally to be an animated feature by Disney that would have blended traditionally animated characters with computer-generated settings. Animators Glen Keane and John Lasseter (who later moved on to Pixar) had completed a test film to see how the animation hybridizing would work out, but the project proceeded no further.[3] Universal Studios acquired rights to the book's adaptation in 2001 and initially attempted to develop a computer-animated adaptation with Disney animator Eric Goldberg, but in 2003 the CGI concept was replaced with a live-action one, and Goldberg was replaced with Spike Jonze.[7]

After years of interest from various producers, Sendak favored Spike Jonze as director, noting he was "young, interesting and had a spark that none of the others had".[8] The film was originally set for release from Universal, and a teaser of the film was attached to the studio's 2000 adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.[9] Disagreements between Universal and Sendak over Jonze's approach to the story led to a turnaround arrangement where the film's production was transferred to Warner Bros.[10]

"Spike Jonze: Check. Dave Eggers: Check. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Check. Where the Wild Things Are has all the ingredients to become the hipster equivalent of Star Wars."

NPR, All Things Considered [11]

In 2005, Jonze and Dave Eggers completed a 111-page screenplay, expanding the original ten-sentence story. On July 8, 2006, production began open auditions for the role of Max.[12] The process took months, but, eventually Max Records was cast. Academy Award-winning make-up effects supervisor Howard Berger (The Chronicles of Narnia) turned down offers to work on the film four times. Although the book inspired him as a child to work in special effects, he felt filming it was a "horrible idea."[13] Jim Henson's Creature Shop provided the animatronic suits for the Wild Things.

Filming began in April 2006 at Docklands Studios Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia.[14] Jonze kept in close consultation with Sendak throughout the process, and the author approved creature designs created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. To make the set a more comfortable environment for Max Records, Jonze encouraged the crew members to bring their children to the set. Some of them can be seen in the film's classroom scene.[15]

Michelle Williams was originally cast as the female Wild Thing K.W. only to leave the project after her voice "didn't match the original vision of how the Wild Thing should sound".[16] She was replaced by Lauren Ambrose, and filming continued.


In 2008, test footage was leaked onto the internet leading to mixed reactions. Jonze responded, "That was a very early test with the sole purpose of just getting some footage to Ben, our VFX supervisor, to see if our VFX plan for the faces would work." Following early fan outcry over the leaked video and rumored "scared children" in test audiences, Warner Bros. announced a year-long delay. On February 20, 2008, speculation emerged that Warner Bros. was considering reshooting the entire film.[17] then-WB president Alan F. Horn responded, "We've given him more money and, even more importantly, more time for him to work on the film. We'd like to find a common ground that represents Spike's vision but still offers a film that really delivers for a broad-based audience. No one wants to turn this into a bland, sanitized studio movie. This is a very special piece of material and we're just trying to get it right." Producer Gary Goetzman followed, "We support Spike's vision. We're helping him make the vision he wants to make."[18] At the end of 2008, Spike got together with Framestore in London to complete his movie and work with them to bring to life the performances through their animation and visual effects team. Over the course of the next six months Spike spent time with the animators on the floor of the studio as they worked together to realise his intention for the performances that had started many years before with the voices, continued with the suit performances in Australia, and were completed in London's Soho.


For the film's trailer, Arcade Fire provided a re-recorded version of the track "Wake Up" from their album Funeral.[19] The new version is not featured in the actual film or the soundtrack and has never been made available to the public.

During the film, various songs can be heard such as "Hideaway", "Rumpus", "Worried Shoes" and "All is Love" by "Karen O, Zahida K, Anisa R K, and the Kids".

Release and reception

"Jonze unleashes his considerable creativity. The beasts are recognizable from Sendak's pages, but Jonze gives them names and distinct personalities that connect to aspects of Max's psyche and to the people he loves. Freud would adore this movie. They are vast, feathered, horned, clawed, beaked and definitely wild — irrational and dangerous, even when showing affection — and Jonze uses their threatening bulk as well as their capacity for cruelty to remind us that Max's taming of them is only temporary. For any child, it is near impossible to stay king of anything, even in fantasy."

—Mary Pols, Time magazine[20]

Box office

The studio decided not to position the film as a children's movie and spent 70% of the advertising on broad-based and adult-driven promotion.[21] The film was released in North America in both conventional and IMAX theaters on October 16, 2009.[22] Early Friday box office estimates show the film earned about $32.7 million on its opening weekend in theaters.[23] It grossed $77.2 million during its theatrical run in the U.S. and Canada, plus $22.8 million internationally.[24]

Internationally, the film was released in Australia on December 4, 2009;[25] in Ireland and the UK on December 11, 2009;[26] and in Germany on December 17, 2009.[27] It was released in Russia on February 4, 2010.[28]

Critical response

Reception to the film has been generally positive. The film holds a 73% "Fresh" rating on review website Rotten Tomatoes from 253 reviews with an average score of 6.9/10.[29] Review aggregation website Metacritic gave the film an average score of 71 out of 100 based on 37 reviews.[30]

Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly gave the film an A declaring "This is one of the year's best."[31] Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote that Spike Jonze's "filmmaking exceeds anything he’s done" before, while also noting the imaginative visuals and otherworldly feel, along with the fantastic creature effects on the "Wild Things".[32] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film four stars saying, "For all the money spent, the film's success is best measured by its simplicity and the purity of its innovation."[33] Roger Ebert awarded the film three stars out of four.[34]

Some critics have noted the movie's dark adaptation for children, such as David Denby from The New Yorker saying, "I have a vision of eight-year-olds leaving the movie in bewilderment. Why are the creatures so unhappy?"[35] Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com criticized the film's visual aspect, "Even the look of the picture becomes tiresome after a while — it starts to seem depressive and shaggy and tired." She also stated that "The movie is so loaded with adult ideas about childhood — as opposed to things that might delight or engage an actual child."[36] The Globe and Mail's Liam Lacey branded the production a "self-consciously sad film."[37]

Critic A.O. Scott named the film the best of 2009 and placed it at number five on his list of top ten movies of the decade.[38]

Awards and recognition

Warner Bros. submitted the film for consideration for the 2009 award season.[39]

Suitability for children

There were fears, expressed by production company Warner Bros., that the film was not family friendly and may frighten children; however these fears were not shared by either Jonze or Sendak,[40] and Jonze refused to compromise.[41] Maurice Sendak said after having seen a completed cut of the film, "I've never seen a movie that looked or felt like this. And it's [Spike Jonze's] personal 'this.' And he's not afraid of himself. He's a real artist that lets it come through in the work. So he's touched me. He's touched me very much."[42] After seeing the finished product, a Warner Bros. executive stated of Jonze, "He's a perfectionist and just kept working on it, but now we know that at the end of the day he nailed it."[21]

Film classification agencies have tended to assign "parental guidance" ratings rather than general or family ratings. MPAA in the United States assessed a PG rating "for mild thematic elements, some adventure action, and brief language".[43] A PG rating was also declared in the United Kingdom by BBFC, citing "mild threat and brief violence".[44] In Canada, the film also received a PG rating in Ontario with an alert for frightening scenes[45] while Quebec awarded a General rating.[46] British Columbia also assessed the film with a G rating with a proviso that it "may frighten young children".[47] In Ireland the film has been classified PG because of what is claimed as having "mild" violence[26] Similarly in South Africa, the film received a PG rating with a consumer content Violence indicator, noting there were "moments of mildish menace and poignant themes."[48] Australia also applied a PG rating to the film and noted "mild violence and scary scenes".[49]

The movie's release generated conflicting views over whether it is harmful to expose children to frightening scenes.[50][51] Jonze indicated that his goal was "to make a movie about childhood" rather than to create a children's movie.[52] Dan Fellman, Warner Brothers' head of movie distribution, noted that the film's promotion was not directed towards children, advising parents to exercise their own discretion.[51] In an interview with Newsweek, Sendak stated that parents who deemed the film's content to be too disturbing for children should "go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate" and he further noted "I saw the most horrendous movies that were unfit for child's eyes. So what? I managed to survive."[53]

Home media

The film was released as a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital copy combo pack and on DVD on March 2, 2010.[54] The home media release was accompanied by a Canadian-produced live-action/animated short film adaptation of another Sendak work, Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life, produced especially for the Blu-ray edition.[55][56]


Video game

A video game based on the film was released on October 13, 2009 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, and Nintendo DS. The former three were developed by Griptonite Games, and the latter by WayForward. All were published by Warner Bros. Games.

Skateboards and limited edition shoes

To coincide with the film's release, Girl Skateboards (which Jonze co-owns) came out with seven pro-model skateboards with the Wild Things as the board graphics.[57] Lakai shoes also re-designed most of their pro-model and stock shoes and added in different colors, adding in pictures of the Wild Things on the side and on others with Where the Wild Things Are printed on the side.[58] UGG Australia also designed limited edition Where The Wild Things Are boots.[59]


A series of collectible vinyl dolls of the Wild Things and Max was released from the Japanese company MediCom Toys. Other releases include an eight-inch articulated figure of Max in wolf costume and smaller scale sets of the characters released under their Kubrick figure banner.


McSweeney's published The Wild Things by Dave Eggers, a full-length novel based on the film adaptation.


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