Where the Wild Things Are: Just Regular
Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze from a screenplay by Jonze and Dave Eggers, is many things: a kids’ movie that many kids won’t like; an experimental narrative that reportedly cost $100 million to make; and a minor masterpiece that will likely lose its studio, Warner Bros., a great deal of money. It seems less interested in entertaining children than in replicating childhood, as carefully, beautifully, and creatively as possible, on a screen. Watching the entire film, about nine-year-old Max and his adventures on an island inhabited by Wild Things, is an experience not unlike spending ninety minutes with an actual nine-year-old: You’ll be in turns exhilarated, nervous, bored, entertained, awestruck, annoyed, and deeply in love with this precocious, hyperactive film. In the end you’ll be grateful for the time you’ve spent with Where the Wild Things Are, even as you’re itchy for some grown-up time alone.
Surely you already know the story of Where the Wild Things Are, such as it is: Boy shouts at mother. Boy escapes to island and dances with wild things. Boy returns home to a warm dinner. The end. In finding a particular child’s life in the margins of Maurice Sendak’s elemental tale, Jonze and Eggers run the risk of overpsychologizing their nine-year-old hero (played by newcomer Max Records), overloading him with divorced parents, money troubles, an inconstant sister. But the details of Max’s life are so deftly sketched in the film’s first twenty minutes as to make Max seem not a typical movie character but a typical kid, not at all unlike me when I was nine, or you when you were nine, or any child. (Well, it’s true there is something to his destructiveness that seems particularly, if not exclusively, boyish.)
He’s a child who likes stories; before his big tantrum, he shares a quiet moment with his mom (a wonderful Catherine Keener), inventing a tall tale about tall buildings that turn into vampires, which his mom carefully types up for him. And so when he throws a tantrum — spurred on partially by his mom’s new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), partially by his sister’s ignoring him in a time of need, partially by a teacher’s woefully inappropriate explanation of the eventual heat death of the universe — his anger becomes a story, the story of Max running out of his house, getting in a boat, and sailing off into an adventure.
Reviewers who have complained about the glumness of the Wild Things, and declared the movie itself unrepresentative of childhood, must’ve had formative years free of the sadness and self-doubt that I, and everyone I know, endured. To my mind the mix on the island of childlike joy (wrecking stuff, building stuff, running through the woods screaming) and childlike sadness (mourning lost friends, worrying about fitting in, raging at the unfairness of things) feels exactly like childhood felt. It’s a time when you’re absolutely free to let your imagination run wild, but also a time when adults withhold information from you and force you into bed at 8:00. And as I watch my children get older — girls, yes, and younger than Max, but encouragingly destructive — I see their joy and sorrows both, and find them both touching, and do my best to foster their joy and understand their grief, even when it is just grief about something stupid like the fact that I have no answer to the question “Why is that a candle?”
And the Wild Things are thrilling: Big, clumsy children with expressive CGI faces, poor impulse control, and turbulent emotions, they convey a real danger even when you’re sure, as a viewer, that everything’s gonna be okay. Hurt feelings and ripped-off limbs notwithstanding. Their voices might sound a little overly familiar, but the actors playing them aren’t simply riffing, in the tradition of children’s movies, on their own image; they’re acting. If Carol, the Wild Thing with whom Max spends most his time, sounds a little too much like Tony Soprano — especially during some very heavy breathing — James Gandolfini is still giving a hell of a performance. And Lauren Ambrose, as the dreamy Wild Thing K.W., is fascinating; her character provides the movie’s biggest narrative surprise and most bravura visual moment, an act of kindness that transforms K.W. into a mix of protective sister, biological mother, and dangerous monster.
Near the end of the movie, Max sits with a small, goat-shaped Wild Thing named Alexander (Paul Dano), who reveals that he knows Max isn’t really a king. “You’re just regular,” Alexander says, and Dano’s voice conveys both admiration and disappointment. Where the Wild Things Are is a movie about learning to be regular, earning a small measure of control over one’s emotions and, thus, over the world outside one’s self. It is akin not to a children’s book, truly, despite being adapted from one. Instead, it is a close cousin to the unique sub-genre of literary fiction about children for adults — serious attempts to decode the inner character of children like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy.
Will your kids like Where the Wild Things Are? Maybe not. It’s not scary but it is difficult. Unlike most children’s movies, it is not engineered to generate pleasure responses every twenty-five seconds. Put it this way: When my daughter spends long stretches playing with a single beloved friend, the charged atmosphere between them seems to cause them to toggle from unadulterated love to tantrumy rage within seconds. A lot of kids will respond the same way to Where the Wild Things Are. But I’ll also bet that when they’re adults, the memory of seeing it will be sharp and vivid in their minds.
Much has been made of the battles Jonze went through in adapting Maurice Sendak’s slim book into a film. (Struggles the director of Adaptation must surely have expected.) On set, Jonze struggled with awkward Wild Thing suits; in Hollywood, he maneuvered around nervous studio suits. For several years, film fans pleaded with Warners to let Jonze release the movie he wanted to make, rather than wrest control of this shaggy beast and re-edit it into something more commercial. It’s possible that Warner Bros., sensitive to the hue and cry, let a unique and creative artist finish the film his way. But it seems more likely that the studio realized that a traditional childrens’ movie could never be coaxed from the footage Jonze had shot — hand-held, gorgeous images filmed (by cinematographer Lance Acord) on a barren Australian coast — and threw up their hands. If they couldn’t make money off of it, they may well have thought, at least they can buy some goodwill. For a movie this fascinating, I’m happy to give it to them.