The other night I watched Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are for the first time. It was a random pick on broadcast TV, and I had no expectations at all. It turns out I thought it was actually pretty great. I was working on something else when my wife put it on, but I eventually set my work aside and become lost in this uniquely lovely and engrossing film.
(Andrea from Galway and Jason from Denver like this.)
CHERYL (Toronto): Agreed!
MY DAD (Fairmont, West Virginia): I agree – I enjoyed it.
CARLOS (New York): My reaction exactly
WADE (New Orleans): It was the unrealistic expectations that caused the backlash.
Backlash? I vaguely recall something about this loose adaptation of everyone’s favorite book from childhood being poorly received, but I wasn’t paying attention. Was there a backlash? I try not to pay much attention to the ongoing glut of adaptations and remakes. Occasionally there’s a really good one (Tron Legacy comes to mind.) But Where the Wild Things Are really caught me off guard with how different it was willing to be not only from the book but from other films of its ilk, and the way it was written, acted and shot like an indie drama. The cinematography is brilliant. I just love the shots of those expensive animatronic puppets with their faces obscured by shadow. It seems bold and kind of pretentious, but also perfectly natural – an idea whose time has come, especially if special-effects and color-correcting technologies make it more and more feasible. About the special effects: at many points I could not tell what was a puppet and what was enhanced by CGI. So either the effects in this film are amazing, or I’m getting old and I’ve lost touch.
The mumblecorish-ness of the dialogue really worked for me too, with the rambling, chaotic interactions between the affectionate but bitchy monsters (played by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker among others) coming across like a documentary of a struggling indie band depicted with puppets. Bottom line is these puppets talk to each other in very serious, adult tones about ridiculous things, and it works. The ingenious screenplay was co-written by Jonze with Dave Eggers. I would like to point out that both of these gentlemen were born within about a year of me.
The whole package is sort of like a cross between Peter Jackson and Wes Anderson. And I mean not only the Jackson of The Lord of the Rings, but of the much more disturbing Heavenly Creatures; Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, released at about the same time, is one of the more obvious recent touchstones with which to compare this film. Wild Things is not a masterpiece on the same level, but good enough to be in the conversation. In the “indie fantasy” scheme of things, I think it would make a great companion film to this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Karen O’s orchestral-indie soundtrack (somehow rough-hewn but shimmery at the same time) ices the cake – say as if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were covering Sufjan Stevens for kids.
I do have one complaint though (and maybe this was part of the backlash which I missed): why, why, WHY did Jonze choose not to depict the transformation of Max’s bedroom? Considering that’s the best thing about the book, and considering he had such a great design team, including KK Barrett, who did Being John Malkovich, they kind of dropped the ball there. (By the way, I recently saw Karen O’s “psycho opera” Stop the Virgens at the Sydney Opera House, which was also designed by Barrett. My review is here; you have to scroll down a bit.) That said, it’s a very beautiful film, with the wonderfully realized puppets, the jaw-dropping art and architecture created by Max and the monsters, and the many gorgeous compositions in the gloaming of sunset or sunrise, like some fantasy version of a Terrence Malick film. And my momentary disappointment was soon forgotten – at a certain point I forgot I was watching a Maurice Sendak adaptation and was just into the story that Jonze and Eggers were telling.
JOHNNY (Wiesbaden, Germany): I saw it at a movie theater and was actually bawling. The film exposes the nature of human relationships in a brutally honest way, but in such a beautiful and childlike way that you can’t withdraw from it.
WADE: People got bent out of shape because they thought there was little-to-no joy in the film. Grown-ups got upset that it was too honest about grown-up relationships and how our grown-up disfunctions and problems weigh on kids – which was often distilled in the criticism that it was too heavy or dark for kids. And it is a heavy movie for kids. Heavy, but not too grown-up, because, as Johnny pointed out, the film is about how a kid sees and internalizes grown-up relationship problems.
As for the transformation of the room, I would guess having Max run away instead was to create a real sense of separation or danger for Max’s voyage. It would have been easier for the viewer to withdraw if he could simply say “This is all in his imagination. Remember when we saw his room turn into a forest? It’s just a dream, and he’ll wake up when he smells his dinner waiting for him.”
Oh, and as to the “no joy” argument, where is the joy in the book? Maybe for three pages of Wild Rumpus. Other than that, it’s about an out-of-control kid getting punished, imagining a life away from his family and problems, and then longing for his home and family, even though that was what he wanted to escape.
Wade and Johnny are exactly right. I thought we already had this settled, but maybe it’s worth pointing out again: the best children’s literature is pretty dark. I’m not only talking about the gruesomeness of Grimm’s Fairy Tales – though here, in true fairy-tale fashion, the threat of violence constantly hangs over Max’s relationships with the monsters, who often wonder aloud whether they should continue hanging out with him or eat him. But I’m also talking about the loneliness, alienation and trauma inherent in childhood classics from The Wizard of Oz to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to E.T. Let’s face it, kids like their fiction weird and disturbing. And if there’s a distrust of authority in there, that’s only natural, and it doesn’t even have to be subversive. These kinds of stories are how kids work out their feelings. Remember how hilariously ambivalent Time Bandits was about parents? Remember how melancholy and weird the The Last Unicorn was? These are the films that speak right to us when we’re young, that we can’t pull away from, that seep their way into our consciousness and stay there as classics for the rest of our lives. Where the Wild Things Are is no doubt having that effect on a generation of youngsters even as I type. (Actually, I think it had that effect on me, too.)