I finally saw Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are a few days ago (because I’m never the first to see anything, as a matter of policy) and I thought it was pretty good. Some people have reacted with shock and horror to the violence and the scary bits, and maybe I’m over-reacting against them, but there wasn’t anything scarier in the movie than a regular kid might have to face in an average week. Which may, itself, be rather scary, but more so for adults and their illusions than for kids.
Naturally, a two-hour movie can’t be a faithful adaptation of a picture book that has less than twenty sentences in it. And this is often a sort of extended meditation on the book: variations on a theme by Sendak; a movie about being a child rather than a movie for children. If that sounds a little slow, it is a little slow at times; it’s a movie that isn’t afraid to spend a few minutes to make a certain kind of meditative impact. And it does generally end up hitting its target.
[Where the Wild Spoilers Are: beyond the jump.]
Technically, the movie was nearly flawless. I kept forgetting that CGI was being used to create the monsters’ expressions. There was no “uncanny valley” issue because the monsters weren’t supposed to look exactly like human beings anyway. There was awesome use of puppeteering and set-building, too.
The actors do incredible work. James Gandolfini voices Carol, the monster that expresses Max’s deepest fears about himself and others. The role has him veering from childlike wistfulness to murderous menace in disturbingly sharp segues, but he handles it well. Carol is always fairly sympathetic, even when it seems likely that he’s going to kill Max.
The actor who plays Max, fortuitously named Max Records, is pivotal though: if he were unbearable (either toxically cute or sociopathically chilly), the movie just wouldn’t work. But he gives a great performance, note-perfect, down to the last amused glance Max gives his mother as she falls asleep at the kitchen table.
We get a lot of background on Max and his screwed up life before we launch into that memorable night when he wore his wolf-suit. His parents are divorced; he lives with his mom and is somehow estranged from his dad; his sister Claire is getting too old to play with him, hanging out with her cool teenage friends. There’s one triumphant moment where Max provokes a snowball fight with Claire’s friends. But, in the end, Max’s smowfort is crushed, he’s hurt and scared and left weeping and snot-nosed as his sister drives away (indifferent, or maybe embarrassed) with her group.
Max has no group. Furthermore, as a creepy teacher tells his science class, someday the sun will burn out, and that will be that.
The final provocation for Max is his mother’s date with a friend (Mark Ruffalo, who played the creepy young mindwiper who wasn’t Frodo in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Max makes mischief of one kind and another, finally bites his mother when she tries (rather violently) to control him, and runs out into the night.
When Max sails to the island of the wild things, he finds Carol knocking down all the houses for reasons that aren’t totally clear. He is, anyway, upset about something, and this is the kind of mischief he gets up to. Max, introduced into the group, claims to be a king with magical abilities, and the wild things obligingly crown him king–getting the crown and scepter from a crumbling burned skeleton, evidently the previous office-holder.
The wild things, fortunately, don’t have a simple allegorical relationship to the screwed-up things in Max’s screwed-up life, but there are obvious shadows and echoes. Judith, voiced with nasty brilliance by Catherine O’Hara, is brilliantly nasty. She is, however, happily attached to Ira, who is quietly delighted with everything she is and does. This looks at times like an inversion of the broken relationship of Max’s parents.
Carol sometimes resembles Max, in his invention (his imaginary world where “only the kind of things you want to have happen would happen” strongly resembles Max’s own bedroom), and in his violence and his own fears about that (Carol, too, is a biter). Sometimes Carol represents a direct threat to Max, representing the violence that his mother (and absent father) used to control him. Carol has a friend K.W. who has mostly left the wild things and goes off with her stupid new friends. Carol is bummed by this, understandably. Is he Max, watching Claire with her incomprehensible age-mates? Is he Max’s father, bemused at the loss of his partner–or maybe the other way around? Is he Max, who can’t or doesn’t want to understand why his mom would want to sit on a couch and drink wine with someone else? He’s Carol, celebrating the birth (and implicit death) of the king, the old song-and-dance.
Max’s aspirations, shared mostly with Carol, and their failure, and the threat he comes under from Carol constitute the arc of the wild-thing plot. The tension builds slowly, but has a strangely tragic inevitability about it. There are some genuinely shocking images in this stretch, but the most troubling thing is the sense of menace that Max gets from people who should be close to him. Like I say, business as usual for the average child.
Max finally escapes from his escapist vision, and returns home to where his mom (comfortingly friendless in an empty house) welcomes him and makes him supper. He tells her a story to comfort her, as he did earlier in the movie, and he smiles quietly to himself as she slips into sleep.
One could argue that the movie is light on story, but it’s really a story about stories: who tells them, to whom, why, what they mean.
I read somewhere that when George Lucas was in film school, it was cool to call yourself a director, not a filmmaker. Filmmaker, it was explained, was too vulgar–like a toymaker. So Lucas called himself a filmmaker. On those terms, I’d call Spike Jonze a great filmmaker. This is a beautifully made movie, a toy for the mind made of things that look and feel really real–more real than realism can represent, as is always true in the best fantasy.