By Aaron Mesh
This is going to hurt you a lot more than it’s going to hurt me: Where the Wild Things Are was never one of my cherished childhood talismans. I was a nervous kid, and never embraced the idea of traveling to a land where great furry beasties could crown and/or eat me. But as Warner Brothers dithered for the past year over whether the film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s picture book was too confusing or frightening for little pitchers, the people who were most terrified were grown-ups who didn’t want their primal memories tarnished by director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers.
But maybe adults will like it.
If they like McSweeney’s collections and Crate & Barrel housewares, they’ll probably like it. And the kids…well, the kids can have popcorn, and kids like popcorn.
It’s standard practice to praise children’s movies by saying they’ll be enjoyed by parents and children alike, but in this case I suspect that some parents will sink blissfully into a reverie watching the characters throw clods of dirt, while their offspring tug on sleeves to ask when they can go outside and throw clods of dirt.
All the truest moments arrive before little Max (played by a subtly emotive Max Records) sails away from home in a tantrum; everything after he arrives among the Wild Things is a surrealist projection of his confused emotions about his mom (Catherine Keener) and his sister. Those feelings, however, are projected onto wonderfully tangible animal puppets, detailed down to the soil clinging to woolly legs and the mucus under nostrils and in the corners of eyes.
The monsters (voiced by actors including James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker and Lauren Ambrose) somewhat resemble Norwegian trolls. Their frolics, however, are a problem: They consist of constructing and smashing wooden nests while moaning about past wrongs. Jonze has saved himself from chaos only by cuing each “wild rumpus” with a terrible score by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, an arrangement of children chanting indie tunes that sounds like a hipster Kidz Bop—it seems to have been recorded on the assumption little ones will love the music of their parents if they hear it sung by people their own age.
Where the Wild Things Are has almost no story, but loads of gloomy observations about how families don’t always get along and friends aren’t always nice. I don’t think much of this subtext will resonate with the intended audience because there isn’t a text. The monsters whiz by in an alarming jumble of infantile hurt feelings expressed in a large vocabulary; they don’t sound like children, or even a child’s understanding of their elders, so much as adults who don’t want to be adults. If kids are upset by the movie and aren’t able to express why, it may be that they’re unsettled by the rejection of any rules or structure beyond whimsy.
It’s scary to think that some grown-ups want nothing more than to go on making mud pies forever.
Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze
With Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker and Lauren Ambrose
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14