Where the Wild Things Aren’t

26 Oct

wildthings

Hipster parents, take note: your movie has arrived. Looking for something beautiful and deep with which to inform your children of the dilemma of their own youth? Trying to find something you loved once upon a time to connect them with the truths of an unplugged, un-Wiied world? Have we got something for you: the new live-action adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are may actually be the worst kids’ movie ever, but as a work of art and a meditation on childhood, it comes across as weirdly true, or at least earnest. Trust me: if you like Spike Jonze’s movies for adults, if you’re counting down the days to baby’s first Being John Malkovich, you’re gonna love this.

This is the kind of movie that co-writers Dave Eggers and Jonze (who also directed the movie, after his pal Maurice Sendak asked nicely) would like to see—not as kids, but now, as artsy, occasionally pretentious adults. It’s gorgeous and thoughtful—a brainy and beautiful treatise on childhood that no child in its right mind would want to sit through. Given the context, that alone should make it obviously, case-closed terrible (who adapts a kids’ book in a way that kids will obviously not like or even get?), but somehow it isn’t—inappropriate, maybe, but not entirely dismissable.

Ironically, Eggers and Jonze have clearly put a lot of thought into their portrayal of childhood, and they’ve done an excellent job of making Max not a movie kid. Pretty much everything about him is spot-on: his dialogue, his responses to trouble, his tendency to spitball fantasies/lies, and his love of a good dirt-clod battle all channel real boys (possibly Eggers and Jonze themselves) rather than stereotypical, scripted ones. Rookie actor Max Records helps them out by being miraculously un-self-conscious while also owning Max’s emotions and experience completely. The combination is sometimes stunning and sometimes almost overwhelming—for example, the moment of misbehavior that sparks Max’s departure from home is genuinely, surprisingly intense for both Max and his mother, not to say the audience.

Where things go off the rails is with the Wild Things: when Max shows up in their land, he walks into their deeply adult set of conflicts, the kinds of subtle interpersonal issues that you’d see in any office or suburban social circle. It’s boring, and not just to kids; there’s a reason we go to the movies, and the mundane manipulations and passive aggression of grown-ups isn’t it. It’s an unexpected interpretation of the book: here, the Wild Things represent the adult world and not Max’s inner crazies, or childhood itself—again, probably an interpretation that’s more interesting (nominally) to adults than to the average kid. He becomes their king and leads them in all manner of wild-rumpus hijinks, but in the end, it’s not just that he’s tired of wild living, or that he misses his mom. He’s the leader of a bunch of predictable, self-serving adults, and that, he decides, sucks. Maybe being a kid for awhile is better than taking on the adult world.  Maybe he should just go have some dinner. He goes home. (Strangely, Max’s departure from the Wild Things is truly poignant—as un-engaging as their group dynamic is, the Wild Things still pack an emotional punch. This is why I can’t write Eggers and Jonze’s work off completely.) 

All flaws considered, it still isn’t exactly forgettable—it’s too Jonze-ian for that, too keyed into thought and especially into beauty. It’s stunning, visually, all spare and lens-flare-y, a weird mix of modernity and old-school lo-fi technique, from the miniature wooden Land of the Wild Things to the Wild Things themselves. In fact, the Wild Things are mostly “real” but assisted by technology: they’re people inside beautiful, ornate monster suits, with seamless and subtle CGI faces added in post-production. It’s mysterious, hard to tell the difference between the tangible and the intangible—and maybe that’s what Jonze was going for all along.

Basically, this movie fulfills every fear that nobody had about adapting Where the Wild Things Are: it isn’t cutesy, it isn’t simple, and it doesn’t fail the theme and aesthetic of the book except for the part about being, well, wild. It’s both troubling and a relief: shouldn’t an adaptation of a beloved children’s book be appropriate for children? Yet, if the movie had been studio-slick, steeped in special effects and Shrekly sarcasm, it would have been an entirely different, and probably more offensive, kind of failure.

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2 Responses to “Where the Wild Things Aren’t”

  1. Patty October 27, 2009 at 3:50 am #

    You’re so right that Max isn’t a “movie kid” and I think part of that stems from the fact that Maurice Sendak himself lived quite a strange childhood growing up. You should read some of the stuff on his Infloox page, cos I think it really goes to show how much more sheltered kids are now compared to back then…

    • psbtw October 27, 2009 at 9:01 pm #

      Hi, Patty –

      You may well be right–he does have a pretty distinctly unsentimental view of childhood (though not all of his work is as raw as Wild Things). Thanks for the link!

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