dir: Spike Jonze
Where the Wild Things Are is a beautiful film. It’s touching and sweet, scary but deeply felt, but I don’t really think it’s for children. I don’t even think most kids under the age of ten would really get that the Maurice Sendak book, of twenty or so pages, really connects with this film apart from the similarity in the merchandising. Sure, the imagery is the same, but the story has been greatly transformed by Spike Jonze, David Eggers and the forests and beaches of Victoria.
I have happily read the book to my daughter a stack of times, and so I know how profoundly expanded the story is in the movie. As to whether it’s true in spirit and intent to the book, you’d have to ask noted and thoroughly aged curmudgeon Maurice Sendak, who’s still alive, who wrote and drew the book nearly fifty years ago, and who I’m sure is happy to collect cheques for the film rights. I suspect deep down Sendak would hate this film if he ever sat through it, that’s just my gut instinct.
My instincts are often wrong, I have to admit. What I don’t think I’m wrong about is that this really couldn’t connect with kids for fairly serious and pervasive reasons, self-same reasons that would make it appeal perhaps to their elders.
There’s something simultaneously intellectual, inspired and childish about Spike Jonze and the flicks he’s been responsible for. He has tremendous control of the visual medium that he earns his crust from, but he’s more than happy to aim those skills at the ‘kid’ inside adults rather than the kid in kids.
My only real evidence for this is that his rendering of Where The Wild Things Are is completely lacking in treacle or schmaltzy saccharine, but is not averse to being incredibly twee and cutesy, and so goddamn hip that it hurts. But even more than that, the flick is suffused with such keen melancholy, and such a golden, halcyon longing for the freedom and joy of childhood that of course it would have to look strange to the kiddies.
Why? Well, the main and pretty much only thing I know about kids is that they’re not nostalgic about their own childhoods, Jonze you hipster doofus: they’re too busy living them. All the radiant sunsets and sweet sadness of imperfect recall won’t be theirs to eulogise at least until they’ve started saving for their retirements and gotten into one bad relationship after another.
It sounds like I’m being critical of the film. The thing is, I utterly adored it, and it made my heart ache; I’m just aware that it speaks to a very different audience than the intended one. You know, the one it’s being marketed to, what with all the merchandise and product tie-ins and such.
Max (the unlikely but actually named Max Records) is a nine-year-old kid living with his divorced mum (Catherine Keener) and his teenage sister Claire. It’s winter at their end of the world, and he’s busy creating his own elaborate world inside his head, bedroom and in the snow outside their house. I’m sure, by some measure, Max is probably a normal kid for his age, although he’s probably more creative and high-maintenance than most. He’s very self-centred and emotionally changeable, so whenever his family fail to focus all of their attention upon him, because they’re busy living their own lives, this can cause Max to edge towards terrible, wild rages, hence the wild things of the title.
There are set backs and disappointment in anyone’s life, but seeing your mother making-out with Mark Ruffalo must be quite at the top of the disturbing list. I mean seriously, he’s a wonderful actor, but he acts eternally like he’d show a girl a very mean and painful time. This drives Max over the edge, and he screams at his mother that he will eat her, and then proceeds to bite her, quite without reason.
Just like the book, it’s all going according to plan.
He runs away from home, wearing his home-made white wolf outfit, finds a boat and sails out to sea, for week after week or even a year, before coming to the place where the wild things are. What an island! Talk about economically deprived! There’s not a Starbucks, Maccas or Coke sign to be seen for miles.
Is this where the potential split between child audiences and adult audiences will result? Very quickly, adults will (should?) be able to see that the Wild Things themselves are different aspects of Max’s personality, and are just as reflective of his own impulses as they are of his recent experiences with his family.
To kids they’ll just be these monstrous creatures who are superbly rendered, who can be pretty scary sometimes, but who look simultaneously hokey and amazing. There’s a mixture of people walking around in furry suits, and a lot of CGI to get their facial expressions just right. I can’t begin to encapsulate just how well the Wild Things have been rendered. They look phenomenal, just incredible. They look as real as Max, though they’re probably capable of more subtlety as actors than he is.
When first Max spies the other denizens of the island, Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini, he of Tony Soprano fame) is destroying some buildings, acting out because of his anger at being abandoned by one of their number, a female-y Thing called KW (Lauren Ambrose). Being wild, the Things immediately try to eat him.
He convinces them that not only shouldn’t they eat him, they should make him their king. Apart from the scariness of their initial intro, and the frightening feral way Max acted with his mum, here’s where some genuine non-kid-friendly darkness comes into the plot. Carol, potentially the most dangerous of them all, is unsurprisingly Max’s immediate favourite. More than just manifesting as a physical representation of Max’s anger, Carol is also kind-of a grandiose dreamer with feelings that are very easy to hurt.
It is Carol who hands the crown and sceptre of kingship to Max, and it is Carol who disentangles them from the skeleton of their previous owner. There are plenty of reminders that these Things could turn on Max at any given moment, no matter how much fun they might be having.
And they do have fun. Lots of jumping, falling, jumping into stacks-on piles, running into sunsets and waves, and building of super powerful forts that will protect them from everybody else. Max promises them that they will always be happy because, considering his kingly powers, he’ll be able to create a shield around them all that even keeps out sadness. This pacifies and delights some of the Things, but there are doubters. Judith (Catherine O’Hara) is especially doubtful. In fact, she’s a perpetual naysayer who undermines and criticises everything, always looking for the downside to everything, bitchy thing that she is. But Judith isn’t mean, she’s just, um, protecting herself from getting hurt, I guess? She’s the first to identify that Carol is Max’s favourite, and despite his promise that everyone would be treated equally and fairly under his reign of terror, clearly that’s not going to happen.
Still, they keep having some fun, whether it’s smacking holes in trees or tumbling and jumping on people’s heads, or flinging each other into mountains and branches, or pelting adversaries with dirt clods in an improvised war. But their fun doesn’t, can’t last forever. You see, apart from the fact that some people wander away and perhaps lose interest in the Things, wanting to branch out with other friends, even the sun itself isn’t going to last forever. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the film is early on seeing Max’s face as a teacher tells him that even our solar system’s sun will one day grow dark. After it kills what’s left of humanity when it goes supernova, of course.
Heart-warming child-friendly message if I ever heard one.
Max, being a kid king, is as bad or worse than any regular king of our own earthly experience or history, not only because he rules solely with his heart, without thinking about the effects of his actions or edicts, but because even in this fantastical realm, being somewhat burned out Victorian forests, he can’t change people’s or Things’ hearts. Jealousy, anger, sadness, feeling rejected, fear at abandonment will dog them all, literally and figuratively, and seemingly it’s only when Max accepts this (and presumably his childhood ends in that very moment, along with the realisation of his own mortality), will he be ready to perhaps travel back to his family.
There’s no narration or narrator, no-one explicitly points out the film’s themes in ham-fisted ways, no-one learns important life lessons today, nothing is wrapped up in a neat little package, and Max is perhaps just as prone to moodiness and sadness at film’s end as he was at the beginning. The only difference is that maybe he missed his family a bit along the way. And he hung out with some cool monsters! In Australia, no less.
When Max speaks he speaks the jumbled fantastical crap that a kid could speak (filtered through Spike Jonze’s particular brand of Asperger’s and childishness), mixing together stuff about Vikings, vampires, dinosaurs and robots and all sorts of nonsense. Even if his acting was a bit mannered, and a bit too arch for something kids are supposed to relate to, he is in no way wise beyond his years. Far from it, and the film is the better for it.
For something so fantastical, there’s something sweet, warm and yet sad about all of it, especially the way it ends, with a plaintive howl rather than joy. Maybe I can take comfort from the perhaps overreaching belief that Max returns with a more well-integrated personality, reconciling the different aspects of his own character in a way relevant to a child, as a path to growing eventual emotional maturity, but it’s just as possible to see that Max is still going to be the highly emotional, creative and destructive brat that he ever was, only that he’ll avoid biting his mum in future. Who knows. The ending leaves it open, as a consolation, but in avoidance of the kind of treacly ending that leaves a bad taste in most people’s mouths at the end of kiddie fare. I don’t, and probably no-one needs some prick telling them that it’s important to be themselves, or that they should think about other people’s feelings, or that it’s wrong to make fun of other people for being different.
Tell us something we don’t know, geniuses.
For me the film’s great strength, apart from the technical achievements with the Thing designs, which are, again, remarkable, is the way they capture feelings and ideas rather than the literal concepts. It’s a feeling movie, not a thinking movie, though there’s probably heaps to think about, and the feelings can shift quite wildly.
The Things are capable of great and terrible things, just like Max. Carol, who’s capable of dreaming big and building great fun cities, is also just as likely to destroy his own creations and possibly even Max.
Now he knows how God feels.
The film’s defining image is probably a handheld camera capturing the jumbled footage of Max and the Things running down a hill into a quarry or down a sand dune towards the surf. The rush of emotion, all feeling -no thinking, joyous and connected, joined in action without having to think about all the complexities of the universe just yet.
I loved it, it moved me even as I had complaints about how ‘cool’ Spike Jonze went out of his way to make it, and at how indie-rock-cred the whole overused hipster soundtrack was, and I feel significantly more towards the movie than I feel towards the original book.
It’ll be many years before I think I’d show it to my little girl, but I’ll be happy to watch it again and again until I think she’s ready for its beauty and unique charms. Truth is, though, she’s probably never going to appreciate it that much until she reaches her thirties.
I’ll wait to watch it with her then, if she likes.
9 times it isn’t always good to be the king out of 10
“I don't want you to go, I'll eat you up, I love you so.” – Where The Wild Things Are.