My notes on Where the Wild Things Are (2009).
The random nature of film release scheduling makes for strange double-bills: Spike Jonze’s long-in-the-making adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s much-loved children’s book was shown to the press just before the remake of The Stepfather. Both films deal with fatherless boys who have a track record of trouble-making in their own homes who have to learn how to behave around family-obsessed characters who are quite likely to kill everybody (and, here, burn down the house) if the reality of living together fails to live up to their ideal of a home. Where the Wild Things Are opens like A Christmas Story or even Let the Right One In, with nine-year-old Max (Max Records) unable to fit in. Mildly jealous that his older sister has a life and friends of her own, and isn’t interested in seeing the igloo he has made of snow in the front-yard, Max starts a snowball fight with the older boys who are picking her up that gets out of hand and leaves him sobbing in the ruins of his snowhouse as the other kids shrug and leave. Then, when he is a distracting presence as his divorced Mom (Catherine Keener) tries to have a nice dinner with a man (Mark Ruffalo), he bites her and – dressed in a baggy wolf-costume – runs off. Max isn’t a monster, but he just wants all the attention: in a wild rage, he smashes a present he once gave his sister, and the stories about vampires he spins for his mother turn out to be pointed, guilt-making parables about his own situation.
After a reel of realism, Max runs to a shore, gets in a boat, and (in a bit cribbed from H.R. Pufnstuf) sails across strange seas to a land inhabited by Sendakian creatures. Still telling tales and dressed in his now-grubby wolf outfit, Max claims to be a king – and is adopted by Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), a hulking hairy who is in a destructive rage, smashing up the huts where his tribe lives, because KW (Lauren Ambrose), a girl monster he likes, has gone off with other friends (two owls who, as it turns out, might not be entirely safe with KW, let alone Carol). With a king to direct his energies creatively, into building a huge spherical home for the group, and approve of the ‘wild rumpus’ of dirtfights and general horseplay, Carol cheers up. When someone says they like having a king, someone wiser says ‘I like Carol better when we have a king’ and a few hints (like the skeletons of previous kings, who have been eaten) suggest this could turn out very badly. KW comes back, but that only stirs more complicated emotions in the childish but ferocious Carol. The rest of the pack are troublesome subjects too: Judith (Catherine O’Hara) keeps making cutting remarks and taking offence, Ira (Forest Whitaker) just goes along with it, Douglas (Chris Cooper) acts the loyal sidekick (and has a wing-arm ripped off for it), a black bull (Michael Berry Jr) is mostly silent and Alexander (Paul Dano) is cowed because he’s small for a monster but has the sense to see the cracks spreading.
Going against prevailing custom, Jonze doesn’t use CGI except for tweaking facial expressions: and these man-in-a-suit monsters have a rough physical presence – we see sand matting in their fur – which shows how dangerous they can be if they throw tantrums. Gandolfini, channeling Tony Soprano, makes an almost-terrifying best friend/alter ego – Carol is credibly open-hearted and enthusiastic but turns mean with dire consequences. A strength of the film is its sense of the blithe assumptions Max makes when coming into the set-up and how he slowly catches up on the things everyone else in the group knows but doesn’t talk about directly. Of course, the monsters are all aspects of his own personality – but this is a rare kids’ film which delivers the message that sometimes you really need to be afraid of the way situations can get out of hand and people can be hurt. Children don’t take it well if their feelings are hurt, can be unreasonably demanding, and their affection can turn to murderous hatred if not reciprocated completely: if they had the bodies of monsters, they’d devastate the landscape and slaughter multitudes.
Here’s the problem: it’s not a film for children, it’s a film about children. Many kids – and not a few adults — will be frightened, disturbed or bored by it. It has gorgeous Australian locations, vividly-realised characters and strong character moments, but it’s a downer, and more committed to insight than magic. It has a lot in common with The Fall and The Lovely Bones – other child-centered, but fundamentally adult movies which have a lot of visual invention and an admirable ambition, but fall into that category of pictures you’re not certain if you really like.
Andrew Osmond I’d go with that assessment, but I think FAR more kids will relate to it than Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. On an unrelated note, Jonze’s film put me in mind of Blue Remembered Hills – if anything, it’s less of a stretch to visualise children being played by monsters than by adults.
As Freud is supposed to have said (but, like so many “famous quotations”, probably didn’t say), if an angry child had the power to do so, it would destroy the world.
Also, your assessment of WTWTA as a picture you’re not certain you like describes my reaction to the film perfectly. I saw it originally in the theatre, and twice since, and, although I’m sure I admire and respect it, I’m still not really sure I actually like it.
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