Where The Wild Things Are (2009) is a troublesome film that strays too often into the triviality of immaturity on a one way trip that proves disheartening and at the end of the day, unrewarding. There is a dark and disturbed undercurrent to this adaptation, a purposeful yet self-consciously dour reworking of the beloved 1963 children’s picture book of the same name by American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak. At times uncomfortable, especially for adults who have experienced first hand an unruly or imbalanced child requiring intervention, there are themes at work here that are just not available to most children and beyond their scope of appreciation. Why would you want to operate on that level in a PG movie about imaginary voyages and fuzzy, slightly menacing monsters? While it is important to allow children to develop a sense of wonderment and awe, to be curious and embrace their own individuality, one can hardly condone reckless behavior, much less empower it, give it a vehicle of such unrestrained abandon as though to suggest the only way to combat monsters within are to destroy the relationships of everyone around you. Evidently this focused and deliberate departure from the fantastical source material was not a problem for Sendak who not only endorsed the film but staunchly defends it. But the studio was less enthused than Sendak, who turned 82 this year, and studio executives required director Spike Jonze to shoot additional material before allowing the film to be released.
This isn’t the first time the wide selling original book has been adapted; According to HarperCollins the original picture book sold over 19 million copies worldwide as of 2008 and Wikipedia notes the book spawned an animated short in 1973 and an Opera in 1980. This go around the film is feature-length, albeit a sluggish ninety-four minutes, and employs an innovative blending of live action, puppetry and CGI that brings the static imagery of the book to life and showcases the voices of some of the most recognizable actors working today; Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Forest Whitaker and Michelle Williams. Tom Hanks came on board as producer with Warner Bros., the studio behind the whole production. Spike Jonze has been quoted as wanting to, “make a film that felt like childhood” and for many this sense of play, of the carefree exploration of the new is sustainable and enjoyable, even though concept innumerably supplants reasonable plot and character development, resulting in a challenging, if not problematic film. One cannot help but pause at the tortured indifference portrayed with such singular purpose, fostered of the director’s imaginings as seen through the rantings of the child guide that takes us convincingly into a dark and dangerous forest only to abandon us there, leaving us to sinister forces, watching from a distance as we are devoured by our own recollections and unresolved dilemmas
The film is excessively dark and brooding for the PG rating it received from the MPAA. Noted for “mild thematic elements, some adventure action, brief language, may frighten young children, and moments of mild menace and poignant themes,” it is odd that a movie based on a book intended for ages 4-8 would contain such themes of malevolence and menace. Surely these elements were intended for the adult members of the audience, an aside to those who grew up with the book and brought so many fond memories to the theater, expectations for the grandeur of imagination only to be hastily doused like a campfire, left to miserable fumes. David Denby from The New Yorker said in an interview, “I have a vision of eight-year-olds leaving the movie in bewilderment.” Rodney at Fernby Films explained in his review how the film simply did not move him, allow him the opportunity to connect with the characters he had grown up with, developed a certain bond with only to find them in this interpretation aloof, bitter and indifferent. Others have complained about the disjointed plot that is mostly interested in showing the inner workings of a confused child rather than developing story. What is indisputable is that Max is troubled and his behavior shows signs of something far more sinister and infinitely more upsetting than mere adolescence and rather than presenting the challenges of mental and emotional illness they are rewarded, exalted as keys to the kingdom of personal identity, expression and understanding. The film resists any attempt at conformity, frequently if not completely lost in the idea of discovery, in a child who is confused as much as he confuses, in worlds that are portrayed as if we can ever truly live in them without responsibility and the result is a film that can hardly move beneath the weight of its own pomposity and suffers, neither coherent nor particularly enjoyable.
Perhaps at the core of the movie is Jonze himself and his desire to use the Sendak child character Max as an exploration of his own misgivings about childhood uncertainties. If art imitates life than so should the artist reveal something of themselves in the work they create. Jonze describes his intention of the film in an interview with Krista Smith for Vanity Fair, “I was just trying to make a movie that felt like being that age and trying to understand the world and figure it out, how confusing it is; how scary it can be; what scary, unpredictable emotions it brings out; and things being out of control.” His goals are clear and even commendable, the process of finding one’s own tucus in the dark, but the problem with this logic, however, is that his film is based on an interpretation of a picture book that contains a scant 10 sentences spread over 48 pages of illustration that was intended to stir the imagination of the reader and elicit a personal, imaginative journey of their own making – not to corral the imagination in rigid, finite railings of such bitter uncertainty and restless sadness. His film makes the journey for the viewer and subsequently replaces the sense of wonderment and free spirit with overt themes of such weight and magnitude as to all but obliterate the source material. It is this choice that not only fails to serve as a starting place for the imagination but gets tangled with the filmmaker’s reliance upon symbolism and metaphor. We are confused because Max is confused because Jonze is confused.
Described as imaginative and complex, compelling yet convoluted, cinematic and sad, Where The Wild Things Are (2009) continues to spark a widespread and mixed assortment of criticism, praise and befuddled reactions. While rottentomatoes shows an overall critics rating of 73% and a community rating of 59%, it fared poorly, if not dismally at the box office. According to boxofficemojo.com the $100 million dollar budget saw a scarce $80,000 dollar profit in total box office receipts world-wide. You’ll find as many positive reviews as negative ones but most interesting are the casual words that touch on a feeling of loss that seems most prevalent in this film, a sense of missing naiveté and the significance of uncertainty and wild things, undefined.
For a different review of this film go see 10 Movies To See Before You Die!
You can also find a hefty review of the film over at Fernby Films, and while our thoughts are similar he delves even further into why the film ultimately fails.
Anastacia over at www.mamapop.com approached the film from the perspective of a parent, found it more or less what she expected or perhaps it only confirmed what she already knew that, “The sun, after all, will eventually burn out and consume us.”
Max at www.maxrambles.com writes, “..it’s enough to say that Where The Wild Things Are moseys along in no particular direction.” which is to say, left up to your own devices, it is ultimately up to you what to make of the film but don’t go looking to find yourself in someone else’s childhood.
In terms of ‘what it means to be a kid’, obviously there are many kinds of experiences growing up – good, bad and otherwise, remembered and desperately tried to forget. One might not set out to find their recollections in movies or art or anywhere for that matter, but when you do maybe what you need more than painful expression and shared optimism is a meaningful and decisive way out of there. I’m reminded of a scene from a film, unlike this one that spoke to me: As Good As It Gets. Jack Nicholson pontificates on the impact of experiences, memories and noodle salad – “Some of us have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car.” – or this movie.