Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Something that I noticed around halfway through director Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, the adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic 1963 children’s book that has, thus far, drawn only modest praise: There really aren’t that many divorced children floating around in Hollywood movies. Growing up, I saw almost every movie that was marketed to young boys, and I’m scratching my head trying to come up with somebody who I and countless others would have had to relate to. It wouldn’t be the kids from Mrs. Doubtfire or Liar Liar, because the focus there is on the father. It wouldn’t be the kids from Kramer vs. Kramer or Jerry McGuire, because a 8-15 year old probably isn’t very interested in those kind of films, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, and “Show me the money!” be damned. I think Clark “Mouth” Devereaux of The Goonies might be the product of divorce, which almost automatically would make him the hero of the bunch—brash and sarcastic, nothing gets to Mouth until he sees his money at the bottom of a wishing well—but I could very well be wrong.
Product of divorce. I remember this one time at church when a guest pastor spoke of the evils of the world: abortion, homosexuality, per-marital sex, and divorce. He prayed for the “products of divorce,” namely the children whose lives were presumably shattered by the separation of their parents. At breakfast, my mom told my sister and I that we were not the result of divorce, that we were not victims. I’m not a victim, but I think that my lot in life was determined by the path my mom and dad went down when I was three: If my parents were still together today or had gotten divorced later, I’d be an entirely different person, and, to tell the honest truth, I wouldn’t want that. But looking back, I still wish there was a concrete example of a divorced kid who wasn’t basically a prop for older actors.
If Where the Wild Things Are had come out 11 years ago, I believe I’d have found my hero in Max (Max Records), a young, imaginative kid who, in a fit of rage, runs away from home, finds a boat in a sewer canal, and sets sail for Parts Unknown. Max, like plenty of kids his age, is energetic, impulsive, and demanding, though not in a selfish way like the ones from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He wants to play around. His older sister wants to hang out with older boys. He wants his mom (Catherine Keener) to pay attention to him, but she is entertaining a date in the living room. Getting used to the notion that you are not the center of the universe is an important aspect of growing up, especially when your mom works and wants a social life of her own. Until that sinks in though, there are outbursts. As a kid, I slammed doors, stomped on floors, chased my dog around, sulked in my room with the best of them, and “ran away” more than a few times to think about things, as I’m sure most kids do. I’ve never seen any of that reflected in movies though, which is why I was so enamored with Jonze’s film.
Yes, enamored. I mean, the plot is thin and ambiguous at best, but there’s a subtle charm there, too. The Wild Things, the island they live there, and the journey there and back again are the stuff of Max’s dreams. Max is a 10-year-old boy directing a cast of six—is he supposed to know why the Wild Things are unhappy? And who wants to figure out that boring stuff when you can make yourself feel better by smashing through forests, throwing dirt clots, building tree forts, and running around like a lunatic? Max finds out that emotions can’t simply be left behind, and that’s what’s really important.
Everything looks great, as should be expected. Jonze is one of those directors to whom the word “visionary” is often applied, and its easy to see why. The film is gorgeous and the Wild Things are cool, but, more than cool, they’re there. Large-scale muppetry kind of had its last hurrah in 1999, when Yoda returned to the big screen before being digitized for the purpose of fan-servicing lightsaber battles, but here it’s obvious that muppets aren’t dead. Combined with CGI, the creatures here are far more realistic than most live-action movie monsters, and look far more realistic and pleasing than the plasticine abominations wandering around Robert Zemeckis’ performance capture films. I probably don’t need to mention the voice actors, who are all well-known and do great stuff, lending each character a unique personality to go along with their appearance. In a world where big name actors and actresses are hired to blandly portray the boring, sameish creatures in most kids fare, it’s nice to see a group that works so well together as a unit.
Something really clicked for me in this movie, though I imagine there are and will be plenty who won’t get it. I’ll admit that my theory about why the plot is thin is only a theory at best and an excuse at worst, especially considering that screenwriter David Eggers’ last film, Away We Go, also tended to cut out the connective tissue to get at the muscle behind the story. We never really know how much his parents divorce effects Max, why the Wild Things are unhappy, or what the purpose of those weird owl things are, and I’m sure those things will come back to bug me when this hits DVD and I see it again. For now, I’m content. This is a big step forward.
Where the Wild Things Are. Directed by Spike Jonze. With Max Records (Max), Catherine Keener (Mom), Mark Ruffalo (The Boyfriend), and the voices of James Gandolfini (Carol), Paul Dano (Alexander), Catherine O’Hara (Judith), and Forest Whitaker (Ira). Released October 16, 2009, by Warner Bros.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.