Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Studio execs are always seen as the bad guys, right? They meddle in the affairs of artists, more concerned about dollar signs and marketing potential than in lasting, authentic artistic achievement. Director Spike Jonze, the most lauded video music director of all time, has gone through five years of trials to bring the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are to the big screen. He’s had his funding cut, he’s been dropped by one studio, and the second studio contemplated starting over from scratch after seeing an early cut of the movie. The studio heads were worried that Jonze’s take was too sullen and too scary for children. They asked for something a tad more uplifting about a boy that runs away to have adventures with giant monsters. Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers (Away We Go) insisted on their vision and stuck it out, and 18 months later, that vision is what made it to theaters. Having now seen Where the Wild Things Are, it pains me to accept that maybe those studio honchos had a point all along. Jonze’s film is eclectic and visually wondrous but this is not a children’s movie; this is a movie about childhood intended for thirty-something adults and film critics. And man, it’s a downer.
Based upon Maurice Sendak’s masterful 1963 book about an unruly child “sent to bed without supper,” we follow Max (Max Records), a nine-year-old on a tear through life. His older sister is growing up and hanging out with older friends, his dad is absent, and his mother (Catherine Keener) is trying to juggle work, kids, and having a life her own. One night she has a man over (Mark Ruffalo, in cameo form) and Max gets upset. His mother isn’t giving him the attention he feels he’s owed. So he acts out, bites his mother, and when she responds with genuine terror, he runs away. He finds a small boat and sails away across the ocean to a mysterious island. It is here that he encounters the titular wild things, giant beasts that act out in very similar ways. Max declares himself the king of the beasts and they accept. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini, a fabulously warm performance) is the happiest to have somebody new to play and listen. There’s also the small goat-creature Alexander (Paul Dano), the eagle Douglas (Chris Cooper), the elusive KW (Lauren Ambrose), and the married monster couple, the pushy Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and the subdued Ira (Forest Whitaker). Together they form an unorthodox family that still falls prey to in fighting and jealousies.
First off, Jonze does a magnificent job of creating the world of the wild things. The cinematography by Lance Acord (Lost in Translation) uses a lot of handheld cameras to trail after Max, communicating the kinetic energy of youth. The movie looks gorgeous but doesn’t resort to a self-conscious gloss. Acord makes the wilderness look inviting and dangerous. The wild things are amazing creatures to watch, brought to startling life by Jim Henson’s creature shop and seamless CGI artistry to provide facial expressions. If these creatures were purely computer generated, they would lose a sense of magic. Watching the furry suits interact with the real world brings so much more enjoyment to the movie. These giant creatures look real and intimidating. I liked the fact that there’s one character, The Bull, who just stands in the background alone, and the other wild thing monsters make a point of not noticing him. He’s the weird disaffected kid on the outside. I also appreciated that the movie doesn’t pander to make the monsters cute and cuddly. They continue to be scary. At one point Carol even chases after Max with the intent to eat him. Jonze and Eggers have made a movie about childhood that doesn’t coddle children. The production design by K.K. Barrett (Marie Antoinette) is nicely imaginative, though it only deals with a handful of stick huts. The fort that the wild things construct is fantastical, like an alien structure but made completely out of twigs.
Jonze and Eggers have made a movie all about the feelings of childhood; however, it seems that almost all of those feelings are negative. Sure Max bounces around with youthful energy, and his imagination goes to exuberant places, but the movie paints a broad picture of how painful and disappointing childhood can be. The movie doesn’t capture the wonder and excitement and possibilities of childhood; it focuses on the somber realities of what it’s like to be misunderstood, lonely, and incapable of changing anything. What about the pleasures of childhood? Even when Max engages in his fantastic creativity it usually leads to destruction and hurt feelings; everyone ends up in a worse place. A great example is in the opening sequence where Max tries to snare his older sister and her friends into a snowball fight. He gets them to play along and then everything is great, until the older kids accidentally take it too far and Max is left embarrassed, hurt, scared, and incredibly angry, which leads to lashing out, which then leads to regret and attempts to rationalize it as not his fault. This pattern is repeated throughout, where Max will get scared or confused and this triggers bouts of physical violence, like literally biting his mother. You might think his time on the island would be an escape, but really all of the monsters are manifestations of Max’s fractured psychology. KW represents his older sister’s approval so deeply longed for; Judith represents his defensiveness; Alexander represents his feelings of marginalization and helplessness; and Carol most closely resembles Max’s id, concerned that his family is falling apart, prone to jealousy and sudden violent outbursts when he doesn’t get his way. It all can make for an interesting psychoanalytical experience but it also can get tiresome. Listening to needy, whiny, morose monsters can be exasperating after awhile when there isn’t anything else resembling a plot. Where the Wild Things Are feels somewhat like Jonze and Eggers are subjecting everyone to their own therapy.
This shaggy, somewhat draggy movie has little else going on, so we watch Max boss around the monsters, commission colossal forts, run around, sleep in a big pile, and more or less try and hold a family together when they are moving in different directions. Things slow down a lot on this island. Max himself is a polarizing figure. Some people find him relatable, his pain and fears, and still others find him to be a wild brat. His behavior seems to go beyond that of a normal child acting out. I’m not going to prescribe the kid Ritalin, but me thinks there may be something else amiss with Max (am I alone in my diagnosis, people?). My wife and our friend Dan Hille both thought Max was an insufferable and unsympathetic brat who learned nothing by the end of the movie. I feel that Max has to have learned something, since his entire time spent on the island was him working out his troubles to gain a little more perspective. Records is a real find as a child actor, and he’s the only human onscreen for like 90 minutes. I thought he carried the movie ably enough and finely displayed the conflicting emotions of being nine years old.
Will you like Where the Wild Things Are? That’s difficult to surmise. It may depend upon whether you can identify with Max; I couldn’t for the most part. This is a much easier movie to admire than to like. There’s very little fun to be had. The movie has an implicit sense of loss and melancholy throughout. Children’s movies don?t need to be all happy endings and feel-good lessons, but then again they don’t also have to be densely Freudian. Childhood isn’t all innocence and rainbows, but it’s also not all rain clouds and emotional meltdowns and feelings of impotence. The movie presents childhood as an unyielding hell. I know other people love Where the Wild Things Are, and I respect that artistry Jonze and his crew brought to this movie, but I doubt I’ll ever watch this movie again in my life. For once, the studio execs had it right.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Posted on October 6, 2009, in 2009 Movies and tagged book, catherine keener, chris cooper, dave eggers, fantasy, forrest whitaker, james gandolfini, lauren ambrose, paul dano, spike jonze. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.