Where the Wild Things Are
Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 16 Oct 2009 (General Release); 2009)
It will be quite a shock, especially for some parents. Hollywood has homogenized the family film to the point where expectations match artistic aspirations for a competing level of mediocrity. We no longer expect magic, but marketing, no longer believe in the ability of imagination and originality to lift us out of our seat and into a fantasy that only film can manufacture. Instead, it’s all fake finery, CG substituting for any semblance of invention or moviemaking mystery. It’s all an open book, 80 to 90 minutes of sheer time wasting reconfigured into a bunch of anticlimactic pop culture quips and short attention span inspired hyperactivity.
So when something like Where the Wild Things Are comes along, it raises a lot of interesting questions. After all, at its core, it’s a children’s film for those who are no longer young, a work of amazing insight and emotional weight aimed at the schoolyard but much more at home on the psychologist’s couch. It’s been interesting to watch the critical opinions on this long delayed Spike Jonze masterpiece (does that give this writer’s perspective away? Good!). Lines are being drawn, the ‘love it or loathe it’ determination supported by suspect arguments on both sides. Those who hate the handmade homage to the pains of childhood have found it dull, confusing, messy, and lacking author Maurice Sendak’s initial message (whatever that was). Others consider it a classic.
Why the aesthetic chasm? Why the massive difference between a work of art and a waste of time” Some of it could be the above-mentioned perceptions. After all, the 1963 kid lit tome was aimed at the very demographic that would easily understand poor little Max, his anger at being sent to bed without supper, and the eventual visualization of a world where “wild things” set the rules—if only to break them in wild rumpus abandon. For his part Jonze has concocted a post-modern version of the same situation, only his Max is from a broken home, has an absent, uncaring older sister, and a Mom who is desperate to balance her job, her burgeoning relationship with a new boyfriend, and her newfound independence with an important if often ancillary concept (parenting) that’s getting more complicated all the time.
That’s a lot to digest, especially for a minor who’s used to taking in anthropomorphized objects cracking wise about Britney Spears and bodily functions. Both Spike and Sendak’s Max are reflective of their time, and yet completely true to the dark and often disappointing tenets of youth. Naturally, grown-ups would balk at such cinematic bravado. Give their progeny as much mindless eye candy as possible, but God forbid they be required to think—or even worse, question and reflect. Where the Wild Things Are is very somber and open ended. We get why Max would want to escape to a place like this. But after a while, we’re unclear as to why he would want to stay. As mirrors of his own inner questions, the monsters are often as needy as they are playful and fun.
This is heady stuff, especially for the current crop of veal that have been raised in hermetically seal social mandates for far too long. You’d think after decades of divorce, dysfunction, and dismal attempts to protect them from both, kids would have things a little more figured out. Yet guardians, assured that they continue to know what’s best (while often doing what’s worst), break out the intellectual cages and chain up their potential problems, rarely letting them explore anything scary or sentimental. Long about college, when binge drinking and promiscuity become everyday occurrences, all matter of supposedly mature individuals—step, biological, or court ordered - look backward and wonder just what the Hell went wrong. Where the Wild Things Are tries to explain the roots of such disconnect—and it also offers some answers on how to get back to basics.
Naturally, that’s just not going to be good enough for those looking for another glorified Cineplex babysitter. Sure, family films can think—just as long as their mindset agrees 100% with the attitude of those buying the tickets. Jonze’s is journeying deep into the fragile heart of pre-adolescent darkness here, reminding us of how fun and fractured growing up can be. This is more than just an outsized adventure with actors dressed up in creature suits. This is an often tough reminder of what it was like to discover who you are, to run through the various versions of yourself that you feel exist and come up with a clearer picture of what does, what doesn’t, and how to combine the best of all available to form the perfect package—or as close to perfect as one can. It’s no surprise that Max gets the wild things to build a fort of near flawless orbital shape. Sure, the inside is ragged and roughhewn, and there are secret tunnels in abundance. But as we all soon learn—a good looking outside can hide an entire kingdom of hurt.
Perhaps this is why Where the Wild Things Are resonates so soundly with a specific part of the jaded Generation X-Y-Z demographic. It speaks to those days adrift between court ordered visitations, the quite time when all you would or could do was dream, and the terrors up ahead that threatened to tear you limb from limb. For anyone in that particular part of the viewership, this movie will be a revelation. It will speak directly to them, in words that only a regressing, returning nine-year-old can fully comprehend. Adults will also sense the wistful nostalgia at play here, long days spent in photorealistic contemplation longing for a better—or perhaps, just a more exciting—life. Fear is a big part of being a kid. It’s what causes us to learn, to acquire wisdom, and move forward beyond the essential and safe. Some will definitely feel this is a harsh lesson to learn within a movie. Others will sigh at how graceful and true it all is.
Of course, there is also Jonze’s approach, which is so low tech and tactile that most modern reviewers won’t know what to make of it. Seeing characters realized in fur and puppet armature, not clean cut CG cartooning, has to be a bit of a shock. But it’s that very old school quality that gives Where the Wild Things Are its intensity and sincere beauty. There is a lot of the ‘70s in this movie, a refreshing desire to explore and extrapolate. There are no easy answers or issues. The wild things are confused, complicated, and often coarse in their responses. Sure, they love to run and play, but they want to question and be quieted as well.
Somewhere, between the passivity of the present and the closed off cynicism of the past, lies a magical island where we can once again experience the world through the eyes of a child. If you’re shocked at how savage and insecure it is, you just haven’t been paying attention - or more likely, simply forgotten what it’s like. Where the Wild Things Are is therefore not for you. But for those of us who see directly into its achingly sweet heart, who stare into its wide opened eyes and find a tear within our own, we’re glad to be part of its unique and off-putting soulfulness. Again being a kid is hard—and so should a movie that wants to turn it into a monster mash metaphor. It’s enough to make you yowl with joy.