Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, January 19, 2018

Director Report Card: Spike Jonze (2009)

3. Where the Wild Things Are

For a picture book that is exactly ten sentences long, Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” has inspired many adaptations. The book's lively but simple prose and immediately recognizable illustrations have been adapted into a 1974 animated short, a successful series of commercials, a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an opera, and quite a lot of merchandise. A film adaptation was first bandied about in the early eighties, with Disney wanting to make a traditional animation/computer animated feature. This evolved into a fully CGI feature in 2001, which was also abandoned. Instead, Sendak’s book would come to the big screen in live action, directed by Spike Jonze. That is probably not the first person you’d think of to adapt a beloved children’s book. Accordingly, Jonze’s film did poorly at the box office and alienated its audience... Except for the people who loved it.

Max is seven years old. He doesn’t have many friends and is prone to emotional outbursts. His big sister is growing older and more distant from him. His mother loves him dearly but is reeling from a recent divorce, a demanding job, and a search for new romance. Fed up, Max puts on a wolf costume, rants and screams at his mom, before running away from home. He hops on a boat, sails across the ocean, and lands on an island inhabited by monsters. The Wild Things accept the rowdy Max as their king and he quickly becomes one of them. However, this peace only lasts for so long.

In the lead-up to its release, “Where the Wild Things Are” was repeatedly clarified – by its director, writers, and studio – as not really a children’s movie. It’s an intense, melancholy movie and it’s hard to say whether kids, raised on more hyperactive entertainment, would respond to it. Instead, Jonze has called “Where the Wild Things Are” a movie about childhood. And not the perpetually sunny, sanitized version of childhood too often presented. Emotions run high in the film’s world. There is room for happiness, adventure, and glee. There is also room for anger, sadness, and loneliness.

This is most apparent in Max himself. He is not your typical movie kid. He doesn’t always have a snide remark at his disposal. He also isn’t a source of wisdom far beyond his years. Instead, he’s as much a Wild Thing as any of the creatures on the island. He’s incredibly rambunctious, introduced in the first scene wrestling with his dog. He’s a source of constant imagination, as he makes up crazy, funny stories off the top of his head. He’s also ruled by his wildest emotions, impulsive, angry, and self-centered. (This is apparent in the opening credits, where Max’s own name has been scrawled over the production logos.) In many ways, this whimsical fantasy film is one of the more accurate depictions of how kids really act.

In addition to its overly downbeat tone, there’s another reason “Where the Wild Things” probably wouldn’t appeal to kids much. Most children are probably not interested in psychology and narrative symbolism. As in Jonze’s collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, the director is not especially subtle about this. The Wild Things clearly correlate to Max’s family members and his feelings about himself. So does the story. The event that spark Max’s rebellion is his sister’s new friends destroying his winter fort. On the island, Max leads the Wild Things in a mission to build an elaborate fort. This structure also ends up imperiled, by changes in Max’s life that he can’t control.

For more specific examples: Catherine Keener plays Max’s mother in the prologue and epilogue. She also voices Judith, a Wild Thing that is alternatively caring and nurturing but also acts upset and irrational in ways the boy doesn’t understand. There’s Ira, a soft-spoken creature Judith is always hanging around, seemingly representing Max’s absent father. Meanwhile, there’s K.W., another female Wild Thing who Max is very close to. However, she also brings new friends into his secret world – a pair of owls Max literally can’t understand – making the boy fearful that she’s outgrowing him. Like his sister.

Most of the Wild Things represent something about Max himself. The bearded, stripped Wild Thing is named Carol. He is the most like Max. He has fits of intense anger, striking out at those around him, destroying things. He doesn’t understand why he does this. He has dreams of reaching out to people but always ends up hurt. Carol is usually accompanied by Douglas, a bird-like Wild Thing that seems to represent an ideal friend to Max. Douglas is always understanding and compassionate towards Carol, even when he’s hurt. There’s Alexander, a goat-like Wild Thing who is physically smaller than the others. He’s never respected by his friends, who ignore, belittle, and disregard him. This must be how Max feels the world treats him. Lastly, there’s the largely quiet bull, a figure that frightens Max somewhat. He seems representative of a quiet, inner turmoil that Max can’t quite face up to yet.

Translating Sendak’s distinctive illustrations into live action must’ve been a challenge. Jonze’s team manages to put their own spin on the characters while remaining true to their spirit. The Wild Things were brought to life with a combination of large, animatronic suits and computer animation. The result is highly effective. They have the weight of practical effects but the range of digital animation. The Wild Things are odd to look at, maybe even a little scary. They are imposing but still look like the kind of monsters a young child would draw. Yet their faces are expressive. They are fully formed characters, with body languages and quirks all of their own.

The Wild Things would not be as well realized without the cast. James Gandolfini probably seems like an odd choice for a children’s book adaptation. Yet his ability to be deeply vulnerable and animalisitcally intense made him perfect for Carol. Paul Dano is funny, sweet and put-upon as Alexander. Chris Cooper, going in a very different direction than his “Adaptation” character, is the very ideal of calm compassion as Douglas. Keener is alternatively funny and prickly, as Max’s mom and Judith. The film’s greatest find is Max Records, a child performer of boundless energy who was exactly right as this story’s Max.

Jonze’s visual direction is not typical of kid’s movies either. He employs a handheld approach occasionally, getting low and to the ground with his characters. This approach is never shaky or unfocused but instead intimate and immediate. Jonze’s greatest trademark is in the film’s tone. The humor tends to be absurd and cynical. Such as the bleating owls who tell knock-knock jokes, the sudden appearance of a giant dog, or the surreal comments from the Wild Things and Max. Jonze also incorporates some gleefully weird imagery in this thing. Such as Carol tearing off Douglas’ arms and the Wild Thing bleeding sawdust. (He later replaces the arm with a stick.) Or K.W. swallowing Max to keep him safe, the boy dropping into a shaggy and slimy stomach.

By concerning itself with such intense emotions, “Where the Wild Things Are” nearly becomes an exhausting experience. Watching Carol lash out at the people/things that love him is difficult and upsetting. The eventual conclusion leaves the monsters in a less-than-settled place. The final exchange between Max and Carol is an intuitive act of belonging and understanding. As in Sendak’s book – where Max returns to his bedroom, his still warm dinner waiting for him – the cinematic Max returns home, a place where he is loved and accepted. This is the root of the work: People yell and cry sometimes but those that love you forgive all.

It’s not shocking that something like this would leave a lot of people baffled. “Where the Wild Things” are is essentially a 100 million dollar art movie, based on a beloved children’s classic. Audiences that went in expecting typical kid movie shenanigans, fart jokes and covers of pop songs, were surely horrified. (Notably, most complaints like this came from parents, not their children) The soundtrack is not even that routine. Karen O., of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, provides several original songs. They have a quirky, home-made, and utterly sincere feeling to them. The film and musician could not be better matched.

Watching “Where the Wild Things Are” has always been an emotional experience for me. I saw the film in theaters with my mom, a few days before I moved out of my childhood home. She started crying before the opening titles came up and we were both bawling before the film ended. (Mom found the film a bit too prickly and downbeat on that first viewing but has grown to like it more over later viewings.) A movie that makes me cry that much, that really earns those tears, can’t help but get a high rating from me. It’s an astute motion picture, beautifully realized with some powerful things to say about how tumultuous childhood can be. [Grade: A-]

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