Righteous Rumpus: Where the Wild Things Are is for Grown Ups

BlogHer Original Post
I was worried I wouldn't love Where the Wild Things Are, even though I trust the artistic skills of the director, Spike Jonze and the screenwriter, Dave Eggers. I've committed Jonze's Being John Malkovich to heart, and Dave Eggers is a phenom, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius in and of himself. So I shouldn't have been scared--though Jonze was also responsible for the unfortunate Jackass parade, so there's that.  And I'll admit, a part of me resonate with  Tatyana when she wrote at Seriously, You're the Worst, "my barf radar put my gag reflex on high alert when I heard Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers were teaming up to produce Childhood: Brought to You By Hipsters."
I was worried because the classic storybook Where the Wild Things Are is too precious to ruin.  It is such a simple, beautifully illustrated story of a boy struggling to learn to master the raw emotions of rejection, fear, anger, and longing. Max, a young boy wearing a wolf costume, threatens his dog with a fork, is banished to his room without supper by his mother, and is then transported by his imagination to where the wonderous and potentially dangerous Wild Things are.  He triumphs over them, becomes their King, and then eventually decides to return home where he is welcomed back with soup that is still hot.
I didn't want Hollywood treacle or jackassery to ruin the purity of that simple, good tale.
Fortunately, Jonze and Eggers fought for the film they wanted to make, and it soars. Where the Wild Things Are is moody, emotionally resonant, unflinching in its devotion to portraying the depth of children's emotions, and visually expansive.  Not merely a children's movie, it is a movie about the experience of childhood; really, it is about all of the angst-filled crisises humans must conquer. It is very much a movie for grown-ups.
Thankfully they didn't break the book's strength by expanding it into a film.  I love the way that Eggars layered the tensions that stoke Max's anger.  The book hints at isolation, with Max playacting without peers, presumably home alone with his mother and dog.  The film expands this theme, with Max (played convincingly by Max Record) suffering from the absence of a father, betrayals and the sting of exclusion. 
Similarly, whereas the book only suggests a classic Oedipal tension (with Max trying to out-wild the top dog, only to be rejected by his mother),  the film hits this nail much harder. Max is unsuccessful in getting the attention of his busy mother (played by Catherine Keener), and is filled with rage because her boyfriend is at their house.  Max acts out wildly, baring his teeth and biting her, and then literally runs away from all of it: the exclusion, betrayal, loneliness, anger, isolation, expectations to be civilized and quiet his deeply unsettled feelings--he runs away from the noise of feeling too much. 
Max finds a boat, sails to the land of the Wild Things, where he confronts fierce monsters, ultimately becoming their King, confidante and sounding board. Finally, Max has found a world where he is obeyed and celebrated for his strong will, where it is wild and wicked and everything goes, but it is all ultimately controllable by Max.
Jonze succeeds in creating a magical inner world that is unusual for a film. The sweeping Australian landscape and the fantastic soundtrack by Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs front Katie O lend to the the depth of the wild place that is evoked by thoughtfully acted, sublimely destructive Wild Things.
Jill Pantozzi from Has Boobs, Reads Comics called the film "a love letter to childhood." She wrote this about the monsters:
The Wild Things themselves? Wow, just wow. A combination of live action, suitmation, animatronics, and CGI were used to make these creatures that strongly reminded me of the assorted characters from The Neverending Story and Labyrinth. It's no surprise really, Jim Henson's Creature Shop were responsible for the suits. The combined effects allow the Wild Things to feel tangible and genuine, right down to the actors expressions mixed in. It's subtle but you can absolutely see each actor's face in their respective monster.
It's a huge feat to say that the monsters embody the nexus of fantasy, fear, power and neurosis in a child's mind.  If Jonze erred at all it was in the tilt towards a heavy hand with their neuroses instead of their fierceness, and he perhaps could have trusted that the monsters would be recognized by viewers as the monsterfication of our own emotional barriers.
They do grow tiresome and the film lags, but I think that is Jonze's point.   Max, it turns out, wants a deeper freedom than pure wildness, or even the power to control the rumpus.  He wants neither to be afraid, nor to top his fear by being feared.  Max is neither a hedonist nor Machiavellian (nor a parent) at all.  Max is our little monk, his wolf hat as his robe, seeking release from Samsara; he's an aboriginal on a developmental Walkabout. He wants to just be, whatever that is, to be himself, dammit.  Of course he does.

"Where The Wild Things Are" New York Premiere

Rama at Rama's Screen liked the movie too.  She says: "Even if you enter the theater with a certain expectation, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE will offer something more genuine than what you had in mind. That said, I’m glad Jonze does not shy away from the danger that comes from interacting with the Wild Things. It is scary just as much as it is festive and playful, it doesn’t dumb you down or insult your intelligence, no matter how old you are."

It's exciting for a mainstream film to be provoking so much conversation already, as the film opens today.  I hope the conversation continues. Right now, because many children expect Where the Wild Things Are to be a children's movie, parents are wondering if this intellectual, violent and emotional film about childhood is going to be appropriate for their children to see.  Cafe Sheri at Cafe Mom is taking her six-year old, ready to have good discussions about what they they see.  Author Ariel Gore blogged that she's cracking up at the interview where Sendak tells parents who wonder if the movie will be too scary "to go to hell."  Professor What If wonders how the story would have been seen with a female protagonist.  Straight up fan sites abound.
But movies like this aren't everyone's favorite way to spend time and money. What are your thoughts?  Are you setting sail for Where the Wild Things Are? Let the wild rumpus start!
Follow Contributing Editor Deb Rox at Twitter.  She is always up for a rumpus, but if you want to see a movie with her, she'd rather you don't talk DURING the film, but then again if you don't like to talk AFTER the film that won't work out well either. 


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