Even if its pleasures outweigh its disappointments, Where the Wild Things Are is another in a series of Spike Jonze’s ambitious but flawed projects.
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are consists of ten sentences, though in fairness a number of them are lengthy run-ons. The book is only 338 words long. Sendak uses "and” 33 times, which befits a book as breathless as this. “And” actually begins a full 40 percent of the sentences. The book takes between two and five minutes to read, depending on how many times you have to flip back and forth while your 18-month-old says something approximating “boat”.
If the language is simple, though, the themes are not. The book was originally published in 1963, long before the term “ADHD” found its way into the popular lexicon, which means that Max, the young hero, eludes easy diagnosis. He is rambunctious at best, out of control at worst. His saving grace is his imagination, which rescues him from the punishment of being sent to bed without any supper, at least until his mother relents.
Surely a book this beloved means different things to different people, so I won’t do anything as foolish as suggesting a definitive reading. My friend Jim told me that Where the Wild Things Are taught his son that not all monsters are bad. That strikes me as being a worthy realization. Personally, for as much as I connected with the imagination-trumps-all theme when I was growing up, I read the book today as a story about a kid who isn’t ready to stop being a kid. Let’s face it, though, that’s not entirely about the book.
I haven’t counted, but Spike Jonze’s recent version of Where the Wild Things Are seems to have more than ten sentences and 338 words. The movie runs 100-minutes, which means I could read it between 20 and 50 times from the opening to the closing credits. That would have to be some kind of a record.
Jonze has always inspired more admiration in me than passion. While I continue to believe that the Beastie Boys’ video for “Sabotage” is The Greatest Video of All Time, I find his features unsatisfying. Even the great-by-consensus Being John Malkovich receives high marks from me for concept, but only a middling score for follow through.
In Jonze’s defense, rarely has a director been more synonymous with a writer than Jonze has been with Charlie Kaufman, particularly early in their careers, and my qualms with Jonze’s movies are as attributable to the writing as they are to the direction (short version: after a crackin’ good start they inevitably lose their steam). Is it Jonze’s fault that Kaufman gave his best script to Michel Gondry?
For Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze shares the writing credit with Dave Eggers. Eggers is probably most well known for being the author of such books as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What Is the What? and for being the editor of McSweeney’s. More recently, he co-wrote the screenplay for the Sam Mendes-directed Away We Go. He parlayed his interest in Wild Things into a New Yorker story and a novelization.
The Jonze/Eggers combo (and those amazing early previews set to Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”) was promising enough to set my expectations for Where the Wild Things Are pretty high. Unfortunately, even if its pleasures outweigh its disappointments, the movie fails to meet these admittedly lofty heights. Ultimately, Where the Wild Things Are is another in a series of Spike Jonze’s ambitious but flawed projects.
Not that there is a damn thing wrong with the first 40 seconds. Jonze immediately establishes a mischievous and subversive tone when he allows Max to deface the corporate logo before the film even properly begins. He then throws the audience right into the middle of it by following Max (Max Records) down the steps, an opening shot that skips all the way to page two of the book. As in the book, Max dons his Wild Things outfit, and the family dog initially stays one step ahead.
Unlike the book, however, the dog doesn’t stay ahead for long. Max catches the poor creature and terrorizes him with a headlock. The word “ferocious” comes to mind, a term that in the printed version would be far more likely to apply to the Wild Things themselves, what with their terrible roars and terrible teeth and terrible eyes and terrible claws. Jonze proves that the term applies to humans, as well.
As unforgettable as they are, Sendak’s original drawings looked downright quaint after I was thrust into Jonze’s frenetic world. When the title abruptly appeared on the screen, chills ran down my spine. This was going to be good.
The movie maintains if not quite this level of excellence then something close to it for the next 18-minutes. Jonze and Eggers flesh out Max’s life in ways that suggest they are being both permissive with and respectful of Sendak’s original text. They give Max a sister (Pepita Emmerichs) who prefers the company of her friends to that of her brother. They give him an estranged father (a globe in Max’s room includes an engraved plaque that reads “To Max. Owner of this world. Love, Dad”). They give him a mother (Catherine Keener) who is trying to be a parent, an employee, and a girlfriend, with mixed results.
Most important of all, they give Max a profound sense of loneliness, which informs his interior world, his desire for acceptance, and his violent outbursts when this desire is thwarted. The look on Max’s face when a snowball fight goes awry is not quite as stirring as that opening scene down the steps, but it’s a close second.
Around the 20th minute, however, Where the Wild Things Are shifts from the real world (for lack of a better term) to the island that the Wild Things call home. The shift is not for the best. What Jonze gains in striking visual images, he loses in emotional impact.