Maurice Sendak said it first: "I thought it was never going to end." If you've ever been through family therapy, you've had the same thought. And this is what director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers have reduced Where The Wild Things Are to-a glum ninety-minute session where emotions are projected onto big fuzzy creatures who look like nested Russian dolls bleached of color, blown up and covered in hairy mildew. The creatures serve therapy, not dreams or fantasy. They embody the vexations of a boy named Max, but none of his desires or imagined ecstasies. And if you've read Where The Wild Things Are, you probably think it depicts the work of a fertile young mind trying to escape grownups and their fat, dopey buzz-killing. Jonze and Eggers, in an audacious sidestep, decided to side with the buzzkillers and render Wild Things as a wintry march of afflictions and psychological donkey work done at the expense of children. If this movie represented the reality of juvenile imagination, I would get my kids hooked on drugs as soon as possible, just to spare them the agony of Having Their Own Thoughts, because that seems like a seriously raw deal.
The fact that the movie does not hew to the book is, to be fair, irrelevant. The filmmakers are within their rights to mangle the original and do what they need to make the movie they imagined. That's how adaptations work, but that doesn't give this blowout any wiggle room. My boys-pretty much the age of the boy in the movie, Max, played by Max Records-would find no terror in this movie. They'd be bored to death and ask to split after an hour. Knowing the original book at least gave me a little investment. How will they render Max's journey across the sea? How will they depict the rumpus? That curiosity got me only so far before the stasis of the movie took over, and I started ooching around in my seat. What, exactly, does this movie expect me to DO over here?
The opening feels right, and takes place in what this movie posits as The Real World. Lonely, moody young Max creates a modest igloo from snow near the family house. When his older sister and her stoneball friends show up, Max decides to sucker punch them. He carries out an attack from behind a fence, pelting them with snowballs before retreating to his igloo. This moment ends up being wasted, but it's glorious for a minute or so. The bigger boys come back and clobber Max, as they would, and dogpile the igloo back into snow, almost crushing the little guy. Then they take off in a weirdly vintage car. Max's sister looks back through the car window with a disdain that is never explained. That's par for the course. Very little about the creatures in this movie, real or imagined, is given any explanation beyond a shot of moist eyeballs and a series of subtle body positions that must mean something to Jonze but will look to the rest of us like Standing Still and Sniffling. (In the book, Max has what art directors would call a "devilish grin." In this movie, Max wears the Elijah Wood mug: pie-eyed and neutered.) This movie, in fact, is a vivid rendering of sniffling, and for that reason alone may have earned an aesthetic place in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics.
After the big kids wreck the igloo, Max hates the world, has a fit and messes up his sister's room. It's a wuss move, though, since he doesn't break anything she'd care about. But we're in the synthetic mindworld of Eggerjonze, which denies us a realistic depiction of children or adults while also making imagination seem like a miserable burden. Welcome to the Home of the Wild Things! You can now bum the fuck out with natural lighting for ninety minutes. Your only respite will be the musical equivalent of prison food: Karen O and "The Kids" hootling and strumming while you try to figure out what you're supposed to latch onto.
Max seems pretty human when he builds that igloo and decides to punk his sister's friends. And when they descend and crush him, he certainly wouldn't enjoy that in the moment-who would? But kids know kid rules. Jonze turns the physical movement of the igloo moment into a kinetic blur and nails some of the psychology; even at the zenith of their cool-acting days, older boys are still boys, ready to rumpus and throw ice. But this is all followed by Max's long, self-pitying coda. What? He thought he could ambush a bunch of teenagers and not catch a problem? Max would have known that payback was coming and, qua boy, would probably enjoy wrecking the igloo, even if he couldn't breathe for a minute. Here is your Cliff's Notes to this slushy, grey movie: everything sucks. Even snowball fights.
We then proceed to our thirtysomething interlude. Mom (Catherine Keener) is angry that Max has semi-trashed his sister's room and solves this problem with a pile of fresh towels and soulful tut-tutting. But then, to make things super-terrible, Mom decides to have a date! With a man who isn't the person who sired Max! Whoever that was or is! And so when Max sees Mom and Guy (Mark Ruffalo) making out on the couch, he decides to wild out. It's hard out here for a nine year-old. Never mind that nothing actually bad happens-it is about time that you accepted the movie's premise that childhood is one long, bug-eyed stretch of misery. Never mind that you've got your own fucking room, foxy Catherine Keener is making you dinner and your dumbass sister left you alone in the house all evening. Nope! This little bitchy Max jumps up on the kitchen table, throws a Mariah and then runs out into the dark streets.
In the book, Max goes to his room without supper after having his tantrum. There, without motion and without company, he begins his imaginary journey to the land of ambiguously fun monsters. (There are not much more than 300 words in the original, and none of them describe divorce or the sheer horror of being alive.) A child running into the streets because of a dispute with his mother is not funny, lighthearted or common, no matter what decade you pick. At this point, we throw aside the source material (already moot) and reach for something even more critically verboten: the personal lives of the creators. Since Jonze has stated the movie is not for kids, but is "about childhood," it feels OK to go down this road for a beat. Sendak never had kids, Jonze has none, and Eggers has a four year-old girl and an infant son. I understand that recalling your childhood is everyone's God-given right, and that those involved had tough times before adulthood arrived, but, for a movie that seeks to represent the experience of being a kid, this movie is tone deaf. Everyone would just snuff it if this were what young dreams were like, and no one would ever reproduce if kids and parents had such monotonous troubles. Obviously, families invite discord but little of it feels like the two-note whine of this movie. Who the fuck are these people? Really?
When Max finally reaches the island-a journey by boat that now happens in the shadow of Lost, whether or not Jonze or the audience likes it-he finds the fabulous creatures. They're a technological coup, looking entirely real and unreal, both like goofy costumes and living, breathing organisms. Really big organisms. Give some love to art director Sonny Gerasimowicz and costume designer Casey Storm, because Jonze seems to want to punish them, and us. We meet the creatures in the dark, and that's where they stay, locked in the natural light Jonze relies on, rarely seen clearly enough to enjoy. But then, nobody is big on enjoyment over on the island, especially the creatures. Max has to conceal himself when he finds them because the alpha male, Carol (James Gandolfini) is throwing things around and breaking enormous pod-houses made of branches. This isn't a rumpus-it's Carol's tantrum, our first laserbeam of psychological projection. So Carol is our Max, then. But, no, after Max enters the world of the creatures and escapes being eaten by convincing them he's a king, we find out that Carol is a mishmash of Max, his mother, and possibly his absent father. Everyone on the island is hoping that Max will take away "the sadness." Yoiks! This is the break that Max gave himself from reality? An Outward Bound test of his character? This island is now his own self-flagellation for messing up his sister's room? Or the rumpus on the island is punishing all rumpussers?
From here on, it's up to you to find a way to stay awake. When we finally reach the real rumpus, it's relatively fun, a sly echo of the dogpile that Max suffers in the igloo scene. But check Karen O's "Rumpus" track and tell me you don't feel a little cheated on rumpussy vibes. Jonze simply won't let anyone in the film enjoy their misfit status to the max. Carol turns out to have a fractious relationship with KW (Lauren Ambrose) and everyone else, too. To distract everyone from the sadness, Max gets the community to build a big, gorgeous bit of steampunk Gaudi, a miniature palace made of branches and rocks that twists and turns and feels like Burning Man's answer to the Death Star. It is spectacular, not that anyone in the film seems to feel that way. (Carol punches a hole in it later when Max gets on his nerves.) This combination of Tatooine and the jungle recalls the landscape in Blood Meridian, which switches from snow to sand to woods and leaves you unmoored and lost, dizzy and ill. Where The Wild Things Are could have done that, and gone for full-on nightmare territory, giving all the anxiety and sniffling a direction, a slow burn leading to an implosion. But this movie doesn't have that kind of bravery-the creatures on the island are a family just like family back at home, with problems and flaws and, bro, you just need to love them for who they are.
BUT DOES ANYBODY REMEMBER LAUGHTER? Why was there only one killer moment on the island? The scene is yet another frustration, showing how well Jonze's knack for the perfectly odd moment can be tied to character and image. (Only a grouch would deny that Jonze knows his moments and his killer frames.) As Max and Carol trundle across the desert, echoing the blocking of several Star Wars desert scenes, an enormous dog passes behind them. Max asks about the dog and Carol says to ignore him. "He'll just follow you around." And that's that. The scene is shot in bright sunlight, which is a relief, though Carol's not close enough for us to see him in great detail. It's a good, multi-layered joke. The dog is four times the size of the already enormous island creatures, so he's just funny. He's a big frigging dog, the indie Clifford, and he's gone so quickly the gag is that much funnier. Maybe Max doesn't like dogs but can't say so because adults are always hugging them and saying "Good boy" and buying them organic beef jerky. What if you just wanted dogs to leave you the heck alone? Imagination, all of a sudden, works for Max, not against him.
Eventually, Max goes home and his exhausted and terrified mother makes him dinner. Of course I cried-the kid was running around in the goddamn streets. What am I, a monster? The ending-no place like home-just reminds us that we've just had a whole lotta Kansas and not a lot of Emerald City. DID YOU SEE THAT MOVIE? THINGS WERE GREEN AND GOLD AND SCARY AND FUNNY AND FUCKING WEIRD. Can this movie even stand a chance against Oz, or any number of Miyazaki movies? Didn't Totoro render this movie superfluous years ago? A child chases after an enormous hillock of fur and noisy breath that never seems entirely safe but is obviously some kind of kin. It's a good idea.
This was originally published under the byline "Paul Friedman Phillips," the pen name of Sasha Frere-Jones.