Finally watched the Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers emo-epic “Where the Wild Things Are,” and I have to say, the final package was exactly as advertised: beautiful, touching and full to the brim with that sepia-toned, lonely-in-a-crowd feeling.
Which is a pretty odd sort of way to feel about a children’s film, yeah?
But that’s what’s so remarkable and fantastic to me about this movie. The source material, a 1963 picture book by Maurice Sendak, is itself a pretty angry piece of prose: A misbehaving boy is sent to his room without supper — and let’s be clear, Sendak’s scowling, wild-eyed Max has plainly been a spiteful little snot to his off-panel mother.
Even Dr. Spock would have to classify this child as a “!$@& little &%$.” Of course, all children are, sometimes. All kids find themselves, at some point or another, all kinds of worked up, wild and bristly, angry at the world over everything, and why-won’t-you-listen-to-me and no-I-won’t-do-it and you-can’t-make-me. Sendak is the time-honored master of recognizing the breadth of kids’ emotions and unwrapping them in the safety of his creamy, dreamy art. “Wild Things” is the gentle dismantling of one child’s angry outburst.
Because, as you know, Max stews in his room until his imagination lets him sail away from home — sail, sail, sail to a faraway land with other untamed beasts just like himself. Here, Max tames them by teaching them to fear him…
… then, after becoming their king, rewarding them with the grace of a Benevolent Ruler. What could be better than a boss who lets you have fun all the time?
Eventually, Max grows tired and homesick. Having released his pent-up anger, he bids his subjects farewell and imagines himself a boat ride home again, where his mother, too, has cooled off: She has left Max a dinner, still hot.
The movie from Jonze and Eggers captures all those feelings, from the initial flush of agitation to the melancholy afterglow of regret. And since this is a 100-minute movie instead of a 20-page storybook, those angry and confusing emotions go deeper and last longer. This is uncharted territory for most children’s movies, and the result is a bit … unsettling.
This movie spends time in the Real World for Max to establish his ennui: a distant sister, her cruel friends, a busy mom who’s dating some new bozo, even a tone-deaf teacher who goes on and on about how the sun is going to die. It’s enough to get a guy really riled up inside. So much so he explodes at his mother at an unexpected moment — she just wants to prepare a frozen-corn dinner! — and he even bites her in his frenzy. Maaan.
But here in Wild Thing Land, he’s finally found some simpatico spirits. I mean look at how happy these guys are. What could go wrong?
Shortly after Max tames his beasts, he has a heart-to-heart with KW, a friendly-ish monster, about what he left behind:
KW: Obviously you have no home or family.
MAX: I had one of those but …
KW: But you ate them all?
MAX: No, I just bit one of them, that’s all … and they went crazy. And … I don’t like frozen corn.
KW: That’s why you left?
MAX: They act like I’m a bad person.
KW: Well, are you?
MAX: I don’t know … I don’t know.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs this ain’t. Max’s struggle with his complex emotions spills over into his monsters, whose Wild Thing nature makes them volatile and unknowable. When his best monster-pal Carol discovers that Max isn’t really a king (at the same time Carol is dealing with feelings of monster-rejection and monster-hormones and monster-loneliness from his fractured friendship with KW) he goes on a rampage. Not only does he threaten to eat Max for reals not for ha-has, but he even pulls off the arm of a fellow Thing. Maaan.
They make a little joke out if it (“That was my favorite arm!”), but the effect is pretty unsettling. Youngest Daughter snuggled into my side for the next several minutes as Carol chased Max with Intent to Do Harm.
Which is just as Sendak intended, I think. Because no matter how appealing it is be a Wild Thing, it’s nasty and brutish and can get real ugly for you and everyone around you in an instant. Sendak doesn’t romanticize it, so neither does Jonze. They call it what it is: a temporary madness that washes over us and makes us illogical little beasts — but if you’re human, it’s healthiest to let go of it as soon as you can and move on.
Which is what Max learns. He lets go of his anger — at least for now — and begins to miss the company of his mother, and of civilization, and maybe even frozen corn.
When the movie was over, my little critics were mixed. Youngest Daughter wouldn’t admit to enjoying it until the next day; as a member in good standing of the Temporary Wild Thing Club, maybe she could relate to Max’s furious outbursts, and the need to howl at the sky. But the trip left her feeling sad and needy for a while. (Her mother was out of town for this viewing; she went to bed missing Mommy more than ever, and I eventually let her sleep in my bed.)
Younger Boy said immediately, “One and a half stars!” He later rounded it up to two, but as the resident of our household with the least amount of Wild Thingitude, perhaps Jonze’s vision just didn’t speak to him.
Oldest Boy had the wisest observation: “I’m not saying I didn’t like it — I did. But I just don’t feel like seeing it again.” Maybe this is mission accomplished for Sendak’s beastly emissaries. Older Boy is far and away our Wild Thing representative, and maybe he saw it for what it was: A cautionary tale about over-emotional indulgence, and the healing effects of an escape into your imagination. Best not to dwell on it too much.
Good show, Wild Things. You were fun and scary and confusing … but that’s just how God made you. Don’t you go changing.
Don’t take my word for it; listen to this numbnut
This is the moment to point out a brilliant bit of commentary about “Wild Things” posted at the Ain’t It Cool News site by a regular reviewer named Vern. While Vern genuinely liked the movie (averring, among other things, “you’d have to be a numbnuts not to recognize this as a unique achievement” — thank you, Internet, for making that assessment possible), he makes an observation about “Wild Thing’s” very existence that is so cynical and true that I am compelled to jump to my feet and shout, “Sing it, sister!”
How is it possible that this movie was made with the voices of James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper and Forest Whitaker instead of Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen and Snoop Dogg? … It seems like a miracle to me. You know what the trailer would’ve been like: Starts out real dramatic, Harry Pottery orchestral score playing as the camera floats through a beautiful CGI ocean, onto an island, into a forest. The sound of giant feet plodding through dirt. The camera comes to the unmistakable shadow of a large, horned monster. Then…
“Wild thing. You make my heart sing. You make everything… groovy.” The computer-animated wild thing leaps weightlessly in the air doing air guitar. Then a wacky record scratch and Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” comes on. And some sort of dated MATRIX reference maybe. Or American Idol. The wild things make little quips, puffs of smoke come out when they dart around waving their arms everywhere, and there’s jokes about cell phone minutes or 401Ks or something. Ha ha, because why would a wild thing have a 401K. Funny stuff.
The teaser poster: white background. A wild thing standing with his arms folded like a lost member of Run DMC, wearing Snoopy Joe Cool sunglasses. Max next to him, similar pose, backwards baseball cap, skateboard in hand. Below that it says “BORN TO BE WILD.”
You know this to be true.
Yes, I do know this to be true. Left to its own devices, Hollywood executives would have eaten their own feet off as they over-manipulated the original tale and power-crammed it into one of their more infamous and bankable molds, just as Vern describes above.
So the fact that “Where the Wild Things Are” got made with an artist’s devotion, not a Tinsel Town tyrant’s formula, is the kind of wonderful achievement that should make you want to cry and salute a flag. Any flag. As the trenchant Vern notes: “Mr. Jonze deserves a Congressional Medal of Freedom for pulling this shit off.”
True that, brother critic, true that.