Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

**Where The Wild Things Are (2009) Not! – Originally posted here at Above The Line on October 25th, 2010.  I didn’t set out to revise my review this morning, it just sort of happened on of all days, election day 2012.

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 WilliamsTom 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.



About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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8 Responses to Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

  1. Rodney says:

    I haven’t seen this film yet (it’s on my list), and I’ve yet to actually read a review that is as negative towards this film as yours! Just about everything I’ve found to read about WTWTA is that it’s dark (okay) and fantastical (sure) and filled with whimsy (whatever a whimsy is I’ll never guess… is it a word Spielberg invented?) but not a bad film. I agree with your comments re the fact that it’s a film based on such a scant-scripted children’s book, and to draw a feature film out of that is perilous at best, catastrophic at worst; I’m saddened to hear that you think in the translation from page to screen it loses the one thing that the printed word elicited so well – a sense of what it means to be a kid.
    Now, more than ever, I look forward to watching this film myself! Great review!!

    • rorydean says:

      While I was researching for the review (which, btw, was not on my list but was inspired by another movie blog and voila two hours later, my review) I noticed there was a lot more positive reviews than critical. I think it was due in part to the art-house sensibilities of many who often opt for positive when they don’t really have anything constructive or critical to add. I tend to go the other way, especially when I walk away with what I feel is a muddy story that uses technique in place of genuine, emotionally mature characters. It didn’t help with all the CGI and puppetry but remember The Dark Crystal? They achieved something in the way of story and character that this one never got close to.

      As for as ‘what it means to be a kid’ – I just feel that for most of the film we are actually inside the kid’s head (the use of low level, child height POV camera lends to this) and while it is free and whimsy, as you write, I was bored and uninterested. Another concept over story film which leads me to that article about concept films that I have yet written. That’s next. I think. Thanks, as always->

  2. Sebastian says:

    Well, Rory, since you asked for some feedback, I’ll be happy to provide.

    Your site looks really great. Navigation is simple and easy. Nicely done. Aesthetically it’s appealing, if a little boring. You’re reviews and articles are well written and do a good job of getting your voice and point across. All in all, it’s a good site. I’ll be coming back in the future.

    If you want to expand your fan base, definitely take advantage of everything the LAMB has to offer. Comment on a lot of people’s sites, take part in the activities (LAMB Chops, Director’s Chair, Acting School, Clash of the Lambs), anything to get your name and voice out there. If you are adamant about it, people will respond.

    By they way, totally disagree with you on WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Loved that movie!

    • rorydean says:

      Thanks for coming by, Sebastian. I think feedback and interaction is what makes this whole thing relative and worth while, otherwise we would all be just a bunch of people agreeing with one another and slapping each other on the back.

      Yes, I’ve been wanting to make the leap to a more personalized, stylistic site for some time but the money isn’t there right now. I might have to make that leap anyway because, as you point out, the last thing a movie review site wants to do is detract from the reviews by an unsightly if not ‘boring’ layout. I think as I make the rounds to other sites I’ll begin to find what others are doing and maybe gather some advice (like yours). Much appreciated.

      Thanks again. Ah, a disagreement! We should discuss in more detail, maybe. I would be curious to hear why. cheers->>

  3. bleuravyn says:

    Just wanted to add a couple cents: When I heard this one was soon to be release I was excited since, as most, I loved the book WTWTA. I ended up renting it and had heard that it had a somewhat dark side to it but wasn’t deterred or bothered by that… until the movie began. I found the sense of wonderment intriguing when Max starts to meet the monsters, but was quickly turned off by all the screaming tantrums and soon found something else to do. I wanted to come back to this movie that I only gave a few minutes of the first act to, but alas, couldn’t talk myself into it. Sigh!

    I agree with your point, Rory, about Dark Crystal – although a puppeteered-kids-type-movie having a clear story that was fun to follow and I think still holds up today. I watched that one earlier this year after not seeing it for about 15 years… and still enjoyed it. Skeksis are evil but, hmmmmmm the darkness was balanced out by the lighter heroes of the story.

    • rorydean says:

      Thanks for visiting! I can’t agree more with the sense of excitement and ultimately disappointment (as I wrote in the review) once I tried screening the film. I think the idea of concept over content applies here and even with Sendak himself offering his blessing of Jonze’s film adaptation, among the myriad of reviewers who got caught up between ‘intention’ and ‘execution’ instead of clear, coherent and satisfying, the film is forgettable at best. I must say A.O. Scott’s considering this one of the best films of 2009 forces me to question the validity of his reviews. I must revisit some of his other reviews and see what is what there. cheers->

  4. Thomas Fitch says:

    When I was a child I threw fit after fit to my parent bewilderment. I couldnt understand it myself. But each tantrum would end, just as this movie, with the catharsis of emotion and a feeling that maybe I was going about it wrong. They were emotionally driven lessons for life. This film flawlessly explores the same emotional states to the same climax and lessons of childhood. The hard work and fun of creating something only to destroy it out of rage and the inevitable regret that follows we’re shown and felt flawlessly, tastefully, and very artistically.

    I sat next to a kid, 7 or 8, in the theatre. During the goodbye he began sobbing. His mother had to comfort him. The kid, just like me, had been there and knew how real that world was.

    • rorydean says:

      Hey Thomas, thanks again for your thoughts on the film and for visiting here. I really enjoy writing about films and reviewing everything. I must admit some of the best debates and conversations come from films when we heartily disagree..as in the case here. Adding what I wrote on FB — I think you’re right about what Jonze intended for the adaptation, that being an exploration of the chaos of adolescence, but for me the end result was very nearly unwatchable. The trouble with films like this is how quickly they begin to collect dust, forgettable odes to the airy stuff of passing remembrances. We realize in our momentary appreciations of these thin skinned returns to our youth that they neither capture what it felt like to live amid a family of broken dreamers than return the color of our bruised puffy cheeks and the shallow apologies we needed more than air and had to learn too soon how to choke down empty promises. I’ve been to this island better rendered than this.

      After further thought and reading your comments, it is obvious this film resonates with you through your own situations and journeys and therefore takes on a much more personal experience. Navigating the intense emotions is bitter sweet – familiar, joyous, sad; we really must cherish these films as opportunities of travels taken and those just up ahead. Where we relate, revisit, and revel in the crazy snapshot we’re given on this planet, we do agree in the artful joy of cinema. I’ve had people ask me why I bother writing about films I disliked and I’m reminded of moments like these, collectively discussing the same object or experience from two different perspectives. It’s not about changing our mind as much as it is about seeing where we’re coming from.

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