Where The Wild Things Are
Director: Spike Jonze
Warner Bros Pictures
By Caesar Martini
Where The Wild Things Are (WWTA) is a movie adaptation of a much-beloved book by Maurice Sendak; a book so popular and beloved that I am apparently the only person in North America who has not read it. I found this somewhat confusing; in short order, I discovered that every single person I know, even people I’ve grown up with, have intimate knowledge and fondness for something I barely knew existed. It’s like every child got a copy of this book for their third birthday except me, because my parents were swarthy foreigners and books won’t stitch up those wallets, boy. The extent of my knowledge of this story previous to my seeing the movie is that I knew it was about a place, possibly where some wild things might be.
But I digress. First, let’s get all the boring praise out of the way: Wild Things looks great. It’s filmed beautifully, with great backgrounds and scenery, and the monsters in it all look fantastically realistic while managing to strongly resemble the creatures that Sendak drew in the original story. There’s a sense of real care and attention on the part of the filmmakers, who demonstrate they wanted to do justice to something they felt was meaningful. And that’s it. There’s not much more I feel I can say about Wild Things that’s positive, except that all the Wild Things look like higher budget versions of Sweetums from The Muppet Show.
So obviously, I am looking at this movie without any nostalgia. But maybe that’s a good thing. Nostalgia is a deceptive creature that squats behind your eyeballs, squirting them down from time to time with rose-coloured piss, making you think that whatever childhood property you experienced ten or twenty years ago was masterful artistic genius, when in reality it may have been akin to a puppet show put on by high school dropouts mentally crippled from sniffing too much paint thinner.
Which is not to say I hate the movie. I don’t. I just didn’t enjoy it, and find it hard to understand why anyone would like it (and plenty of people do, so take my opinion with a boulder of salt). There’s nobody in this film who I found particularly likable, save for our main character Max’s mother (Catherine Keener). Max isn’t the best kid, though you do feel sorry for him because nobody seems to understand him or even tolerate him much. The rest of the characters you’re exposed to are the Wild Things, and they are much like the Seven Dwarves if they were all assholes: there’s Alex, Ira, The Bull, Judith, Douglas, KW, and Carol. Or, respectively: Whiny, Stupid, Brain Damaged, Bitchy, Sycophantic, Mopey, and Violently Unstable.
After a fight with his mother, Max runs away from home and stumbles into the secret land of the Wild Things (which, according to the book, is all in his imagination), quickly becoming their king through a hastily-spun web of lies. Soon Max finds out it’s not as easy as it looks to unite a bunch of simplistic flesh-eating monsters into a happy family, and his kingdom begins to unravel.
One problem I had with Wild Things is that I never knew where it was going or what it was trying to be. I assumed that since it was a kids’ book, it would have a kiddy tone, but this is not the case. It may be about being a kid, and all the uncomfortability and loneliness that comes along with that, but it is definitely not for kids. But, it’s not really for adults either, because the plot is meandering and boring, with a little dash of confusing sprinkled on top. It has the uncomfortable feel of watching a dysfunctional family forced to spend time with each other at Christmas.
At first I concluded it must be for fans, but how could this movie be for fans of the book when the book had only ten complete sentences in it? How do you flesh out a story that takes less than a minute to read and still remain loyal to the source material? At the end of the day, the content of the movie story is probably 5% Maurice Sendak and 95% Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers’ filler. And what boggles my mind is that they even omitted a scene from the book! How do you make a movie that’s 100 times longer than the book it’s based on and still not manage to include everything?
I’m going to do something I don’t normally do here, and that’s reveal spoilers. It would be difficult to talk about the part of Wild Things that really bothers me without them, so avoid the rest of this review if you’re dead set on being surprised.
My big issue is with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini). He seems to be Max’s closest friend in the movie at first, and he’s clearly troubled. He’s sad and angry all the time, but he and Max bond quite quickly, and they seem to help each other through their lives. And then, for no particular reason, Carol quickly goes apeshit, trashes things, rips off the arm of a fellow Wild Thing, and then attempts to eat Max. I’ll say that again: he mutilates one of his friends and tries to murder a child in a blind rage. At this point Carol sheds the image of Troubled Friend With a Heart of Gold and dons the less endearing outfit of Drunken Abusive Stepfather. I suspect that if I read the children’s book I would have a hard time trying to find this part, and if I did, it wouldn’t be portrayed in quite so frightening a manner.
So Max wisely decides to leave the land of Wild Things via the boat he first arrived in. As the rest of the monsters bid a perplexingly tearful farewell to the child that lied to them and screwed their lives up beyond repair, Carol rushes to the beach, overcome with emotion and sadness, just as Max pushes off the shore. I got the distinct impression I was supposed to feel sorry for Carol as he blubbered and wept in the shallow waves. But by this time I got the impression that Carol was a self-loathing abusive husband who finally beat his wife so hard that she left him for good, so I found it difficult to muster up any sympathy, and the emotional apex of the movie bounced off my hardened exterior like good decisions bounce off Jon Gosselin.
In the filmmakers’ defence, I do get a sense that there’s some high-concept stuff at work here — that the Wild Things might be aspects of Max’s personality brought to life by his imagination, that the film is designed to be awkward and disconcerting to mirror the displeasure of an unhappy child, and how the part where Carol turns on Max is a metaphor for Max experiencing how his own wild streak affects and frightens others. It’s just that, well… I don’t care. All that stuff (if indeed that’s what’s happening) is well and good, and to be commended, but it didn’t make the movie enjoyable. Without the crutch of nostalgia propping it up, I feel that all this deep, esoteric meaningfulness falls flat on its face. Then down a ravine.