'Where the Wild Things Are' and James Gandolfini's Defining Film Performance

where the wild things are gandolfini

James Gandolfini’s passing, to be expected, has brought out a wave of mourning online, but the most surprising aspect of the responses has been the sheer breadth of work mentioned as personal favorites. As Scott Tobias so rightly noted on Twitter, seeing nearly all of his roles mentioned as among his finest is one of the best tributes that could be made to the actor’s talent.

Of all Gandolfini’s memorable, show-stealing performances, my own favorite is one in which that iconic, imposing but charismatic image of his does not even make an appearance. I am talking of his voice role in Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”. I haven’t seen the film since shortly after its home video release, but Gandolfini’s Carol has never left me since 2009.

The central Wild Thing encountered by the runaway Max, Carol is the most blatant projection of the human boy’s fear and loathing, the clearest indication that these beasts are the monsters of the child’s id-driven imagination, as well as the product of his quest for a relatable father figure. Scooping up Max as a king, Carol provides that paternal quality for the boy to replace the dad he lacks. But because Carol is also a reflection of the child’s inner mind, he does not have the maturity to correspond with his size and sense of power.

Look at this beautiful scene where Carol talks about the fate of the desert and Max discusses the eventual death of the Sun:

Neither has the wisdom nor maturity to give answers to their unsettling worries: Carol knows that the desert that formed from rock will eventually turn to dust but does not know what that will mean, while Max’s observation of the Sun’s limited lifespan is rattled off as it no doubt entered his head: merely a factoid he absorbed while paying half-attention in class. But Gandolfini’s voice betrays a sense not only of curiosity but disquiet: knowing that this bleak expanse of land will only get worse is hard enough to process, but the news of the sun. The illusion of Carol’s safety breaks down, only to be instantly re-inflated by braggadocio as he assures Max (and, no less so, himself) that a tiny thing like the Sun could never concern them. In an instant, whatever stability Carol offers is replaced by the awareness of his false shade, all from the subtle inflections of Gandolfini’s voice.

Even better is the terrifying scene in which Carol realizes Max is not all he’s made out to be:

The intervallic gaps of Carol’s mood swings, as well as the focus of his inchoate feelings, rely fully on Gandolfini’s vocal pitches. The clip starts with Carol raging at Max for not living up to his promise, the monster’s confidence in his king totally eroded. When Carol’s best friend, Douglas, finally says aloud what everyone but Carol knew all along, that Max is no king, suddenly his friend turns on him. Having himself come close to calling Max a fraud, Carol cannot handle hearing that doubt confirmed aloud. The anger turns to an aghast whimper, the voice of a child who has flirted with a swear word but blanches when he hears it actually spoken. “Don’t say that. How could you say that? Don’t you dare say that,” Carol rapidly replies.

Gandolfini puts the emphasis in different places in each sentence, mapping out a frenzy of emotions in less than five seconds. The inability to pick a specific target for his feelings of anger, rage, resentment, confusion and hurt, bouncing viciously between the person who wounded him and the person who dared to point it out, completely reverses the father-son dynamic of Max and his imaginary friend: now it is Max, the progenitor of this vision of the id, who has become the neglectful, deceitful father and Carol who acts out the boy’s feelings toward his own dad. This is, naturally, a thematic shift established by Jonze’s direction and the script, but it is Gandolfini’s voice, with its slow erosion of wisdom and its sudden escalation of hostilities, that truly communicates the change.

Celebrity voice casting is, by and large, a useless and money-wasting gimmick. (Look up nearly any interview with Billy West to get some idea of how voice actors view such stunt-casting.) Often, big-name talent get paid more simply to talk in their normal voices than voice actors who can perform a half-dozen or more fully fleshed-out vocal parts, all for the dubious reward of slapping a familiar name on a poster. But Gandolfini gives an honest-to-God performance, one that covers a broad emotional spectrum but is always real and raw, capable of extracting considerable amounts of fear and heartbreak from the flesh he places on the costumed-and-computer-animated fuzzball that puts a body to his voice.


Gandolfini will rightly be remembered for Tony Soprano, unquestionably the most influential TV character of the modern era. That role built upon the actor’s live self over an extended period of time, hiding the mobster’s uninhibited macho id under a calculating superego that knows how to get what it wants without sacrificing an image of collected calm. As a part, Carol is the opposite of Tony: a disembodied presence that aggressively pursues what it has not even identified as a true desire. It’s the most visible example of how much Gandolfini liked to push himself, which can be seen in the acidic confidence he brought to a politically minded general in “In the Loop”, the “Oh, what next?” exasperation of his scandalized mayor in “The Taking of Pelham 123” and so much more.

Gandolfini never wanted for acclaim, but his work in “Where the Wild Things Are” is not merely a great performance but a defining one in its field of voice acting. The ultimate melancholy of the role makes it a fitting role to get stuck in my head at the moment, though that also makes the prospect of revisiting Gandolfini’s exceptional work in it too painful a task for the time being. The wrenching farewell scene that ends Max’s time with the Wild Things is not available online (or at least, it is not available as anything other than a repurposed music video), but if Gandolfini could play Carol as his own parent and child, the keening howl he creates for the monster’s goodbye makes an appropriately self-reflexive send off for himself.

This piece was originally published on Not Just Movies. It has been revised by the original author for the purposes of this republication.