With the power of an iconic character comes responsibility; for better or worse, the viewing public forms an attachment to an actor in a role that their subsequent work can only threaten. Some cultivate familiarity by seeking more of the same. Others search for change to expand their repertoire.
For nine years, James Gandolfini was Tony Soprano, a connection so strong that it will forever remain his legacy. His prowess as the small screen mob boss was unmistakable, and his impact eternally enviable. Yet behind the television masterpiece, lurked more than applause and acclaim.
Before The Sopranos catapulted Gandolfini to certified stardom, he made his mark in similar but supporting roles, imparting menace as well as meaning. During the show’s run, his cinematic excursions again rang with an awareness of his strengths, drawing upon expectation. In the six years since the program faded to black, variety has proven pivotal, offering texture to his resume. Each subsequent choice deepened his on-screen persona, but never sullied his most persuasive creation.
For a figure best known and loved as a hulking, harrowing titan of organised crime, adding shades of difference was bold and brave, but pursued with commitment. In the acerbic and witty In the Loop, he aptly demonstrated affable charm in political satire; in the standard remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, he gave his commanding presence to the role of mayor. Welcome to the Rileys invested the gentleness of familial bonds, and Killing Them Softly showed a willingness not to take himself or his claim to fame too seriously. All afforded a departure from Tony Soprano, but were borne of him, amplifying elements of the character’s complexity.
Where the Wild Things Are may prove the least likely of Gandolfini’s post-Sopranos parts, but it may also be the most influential to his memory. Lending his voice to an expressionistic adaptation of a beloved but brief 40-page illustrated children’s novel, he truly shed his on-screen skin to inhabit a being as dissimilar from anticipation as was possible. Yet, though his physical form is absent in his role, with the meticulous, animatronic felt-work of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop his cypher, his inimitable presence is always evident. As the defacto leader of the titular Wild Things, he seethes with pain and poignancy as he vocalizes the inner feelings of the film’s adolescent protagonist.
Indeed, Gandolfini’s impulsive, conflicted Carol proves the embodiment of all that nine-year-old Max (Max Records, The Sitter) feels but cannot say, his interactions with his fellow lovable beasts reflecting Max’s domestic troubles. He exists on a literal island of isolation, both within Max’s rage-fuelled rampage away from his mother (Catherine Keener, Please Give), and in his delicate headspace, with only his like-minded friends for company. When Max seeks their solace after reacting badly to the change his mum’s new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo, The Brothers Bloom) represents, and the fading of his carefree state as maturity slowly encroaches, it is Carol that welcomes him with unconditional love. That their relationship becomes as complicated as those awaiting Max at home is not by chance; as he rejoices in their alliance, embraces Max’s youthful impact, then struggles with the reality of his involvement, Carol teaches Max that accepting the good with the bad is what makes a family.
Of course, writer/director Spike Jonze (Adaptation) and co-scribe Dave Egger’s (Away We Go) translation of Maurice Sendak’s picture book is firmly focused on the wolf-suit-wearing Max: the loneliness that soars as his sister (Pepita Emmerichs, TV’s Blue Heelers) ignores his pleas for attention, the hurt that springs when her friends turn his playful games into an opportunity for cruelty, and the rejection he feels when his mother ignores his needs and wants in favour of her love interest. His voyage to the Wild Things – not only Carol, but the forceful Judith (Catherine O’Hara, For Your Consideration), kind Ira (Forest Whitaker, Winged Creatures), victimized Alexander (Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood), diplomatic Douglas (Chris Cooper, Breach), regressive Bull (Michael Berry Jr., Star Trek), torn K.W. (Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under) and her shunned friends Bob and Terry (Jonze, Three Kings) – is pure catharsis; unable to cope with the realities of his world, he manifests one of his own.
Yet the mischievous child and his magical journey could not have come to pass without Carol, the biggest piece of Max’s personality puzzle, and the one most closely tied to his fractured sense of self. As Carol angrily tears down stick houses, he reflects the havoc Max wreaked on his sister’s bedroom; his dizzy enthusiasm to build a shared fort mimics Max’s own eagerness to share his pillow-and-blanket structure with his distracted mother; the ire that emanates when things don’t go his way is illustrative of Max’s reaction to eating frozen corn for dinner; when he uncovers an intricate, intimate existence known only to himself, he mirrors Max’s very place and purpose amongst his bulky brethren.
Similarly, of all the expert voice acting that accompanies the unruly but endearing creatures, it is Gandolfini’s that shines brightest, imbuing a vulnerability in conviction that resonates at the same pitch as the story. His immense range of emotion not only echoes the sentiments that surge on screen, but dictates their pace and potency, providing the beats that ground the narrative. Even as the story plunges darker depths, Gandolfini both rages with the fragmentation of competing feelings, negative and positive, and offers the beauty of balance. If Max Records’ enigmatic performance gives the film its eyes and ears, Gandolfini’s voice is its heart.
As a film, Where the Wild Things Are remains an adventurous achievement on many levels, with Jonze effortlessly extending his distinct cinematic style from the absurdity of Being John Malkovich and the clever chaos of Adaptation to the empathy and earnestness of Sendak’s transcendent tale, the technical team paying tribute to the iconic imagery of the source material by recreating it with care and contemplation, and Records a revelation in the challenging leading role. However, the strangeness and sweetness that arises is driven by the affection and authenticity of the eponymous creatures, with the central Gandolfini exquisite at capturing the temperamental, tenacious and tender that accompanies the passing of childhood innocence and imagination.