Thursday, October 15th, 2009

"Where the Wild Things Are": Where Is the Place Where They Put the Things?

SO PLUSHMaurice 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.

Snow Ball FightMax 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.

TATOOINEBUT 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.

33 Comments / Post A Comment

riotnrrd (#840)

Good review, but I disagree (a bit). I think the movie did capture the confusion and frustration of being a young boy very well. If Jonze and Eggers were trying to represent some of the dark emotions that are wrapped up in creativity and imagination and being "wild," they succeeded.

That praise given, the movie lasted twice as long as it needed to to get this point across. And it's kind of one sided; there are few (if any) moments of exhilaration or joy shown in the film. Childhood is dark and scary and confusing, but that's not all it is, but that's all this movie is.

sox (#652)

well this is fucking disappointing. i knew the trailer with arcade fire song was going to better than the whole damn movie. hrmmph.

i heart the WE ARE ALL IN THAT BALLOON TAG though.

sox (#652)

i'll just plan to plug in the i-pod and loop arcade fire through the whole thing so i can still enjoy the visuals.

Hirham (#1,709)

Good piece, though by mentioning Totoro, you've increased my chances of seeing this film. No matter how the comparison was made, it's a pavlovian thing (note to Awl grammarians- are we at a point where we don't have to capitalize 'pavlovian'?).

HiredGoons (#603)

Saw the film at MoMA last night, and I enjoyed it. It didn't try to be anything it wasn't and there wasn't any moment where I was thinking 'cooorrrrnnnny' – a good children's movie with stuff for adults.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

"I thought it was never going to end" indeed.

elecampane (#1,877)

Damn you. I've managed to go months without watching Totoro. The bus stop scene! Every time I plant something, I do the growing motions.

hazmathilda (#839)

Yes! And do you also half-expect a ton of little round black sea urchin type things to go skittering away any time you turn on the light after opening the door?

elecampane (#1,877)

ooooooh yes. soot sprites! I've had the theme song in my head all evening . . .

Bittersweet (#765)

Poor soot sprites…apparently when they left Satsuki and Mai's house they ended up in indentured servitude over at Yubaba's bathhouse.

Bittersweet (#765)

No shit, elecampane, the bus stop scene! Who doesn't want their own cat bus?

It's time for a Totoro/Spirited Away double feature weekend at my house.

metoometoo (#230)

I want a cat bus more than anything in the world.

Kataphraktos (#226)

Without meaning to belittle the rest of this fantastic review, but:

"throws a Mariah"

I love you.

SO my new Gmail tag.

gregorg (#30)

I mean, I really want to hate this movie and feel fully justified in doing so, just on principle–mostly because there's a #$)%(ing video game version now.

But seriously? I cannot hold this whiny ramble and Manohla Dargis's near-rapturous review in my head at once without thinking that one of you is totally missing the point. Or several.

joshc (#442)

hint: believe the dargis review instead. she really seemed to get the point of the movie.

Um, what? Sometimes people have differences of opinion! It's not that some people "get" the "point." It's that people ARE DIFFERENT and their critical faculties lead them to have different opinions and experiences.

Kataphraktos (#226)

Really? Why are people so impressed by something just because it is published by the Grey Harlot?

"Yet these are minor complaints about a film that often dazzles during its quietest moments, as when Max sets sail, and you intuit his pluck and will from the close-ups of him staring into the unknown. He looms large here, as we do inside our heads. But when the view abruptly shifts to an overhead shot, you see that the boat is simply a speck amid an overwhelming vastness. This is the human condition, in two eloquent images."

This navel-gazing drivel is a movie review?

Paul's Awl review tells me about his experience. After I read it, I moved from 0% chance of going to see it to perhaps 25% chance of doing so, because I'd like to see what my response is going to be.

The NYT review seems to tell me "This is what you must experience when you see this movie. Mach Schnell!" Reading it brought me right back to 0%, because it made me feel like I'm not one of the Chosen Ones: self-absorbed boomer douchebags looking to cry into their chai lattes over the implosion of their 401k and blame their parents for their erectile dysfunction and impending poverty-laced dotage.

The NYT review was written for Tim Robbin's character in High Fidelity.

Kataphraktos (#226)

P.S.: "close-ups of him staring into the unknown"

I direct you to last week's episode of Mad Men, featuring manly men posing, meaningful thousand-yard stares begging for attention and your cigarette-smoking dollars.

davidwatts (#72)

"There are different ways to read the wild things, through a Freudian or colonialist prism. . ."

Dargis never met a chance to engage in wan, grad-school-lite film theorizing she didn't like. I'm surprised she got through the whole review without saying "gaze"!

gregorg (#30)

I guess by "point," I meant the director's intentions, which I imagine to be an identifiable bundle that overlaps more [or less] with what Terry Gross pulls out of Jonze. I couldn't see how PFP and Manohla were even talking about the same film.

THAT SAID, I just got home from the movie, and I now understand. I think I see what Jonze & Eggers were trying to do, they executed it well–and it was annoying, cloying, and manipulative. PFP was right, Manohla's a loopy emo. My bad.

toadvine (#1,698)

Just another sign that Hollywood is as devoid of ideas as Broadway long has been. It's not particularly surprising that it's bad.

bagya (#1,949)

I did not know how will be this movie. I watched it just now and there is nothing wrong so far. I am hoping to go cinema to watch where the wild things are again. Already it has built big wave around the country and of course it was amazing movie for all movie lovers.


musicmope (#428)

I do not understand the author's need for a pseudonym. Please add a vague explanatory tag, as The Times does when justifying the reasoning for anonymous sources.

Sometimes we all have reasons to use pen names.

vmaverick (#1,977)

My understanding is that pfp is a pseudonym for Manohla Dargis.

sigerson (#179)

Presumably he has a day job that prohibits blogging. Like mine.

lululemming (#409)

I hate hate hate when people say this about reviewers, but this really reads like a bad review was a forgone conclusion before the writer set foot in the theatre.

On the other hand,WTWTA could be complete shit. We'll see.

And yes, what up with the pseudonym? If you don't tell us the reason for hiding, we're all just going to assume it was co-written by Nick Denton, Carol Channing and Scooter Libby.

See above.

I also went to see this movie with an open mind and I came away with a fairly similar opinion to this writer.

cherrispryte (#444)

There was so much hype and such high expectations about this movie that, like the Obama administration, even if its awesome it is still a disappointment.

Natan (#1,967)

"Timothy McSweeney's Vivid Rendering of Sniffling."

blily (#1,411)

Huh. To me it was a fairly heavy-handed coming-of-age allegory about learning to live with your emotions– particularly the strongest, most intense emotions, which make you feel out of control, like a "wild thing." To wit: real-life Max struggles with feelings of rage, fear and sadness fueled by his sense of abandonment (not just his father, sister and mother will abandon him– the very sun is going to abandon him). These emotions take Max over, turning him into a "wild thing" — (his mother calls him this) and he "goes" over entirely to where the wild things are. But by simply spending time with the Wild Things, he empathizes with them and learns that it is neither possible nor necessary to dominate them (as a king). Instead, simply by living with them and understanding them, his fear/rage at abandonment (embodied in Carol), his desire to have perfect parents that magically satisfy every emotional need (embodied in Jan), and his feeling that nobody listens to him (embodied in the one nobody listens to) all grow calmer. "Max" as the embodiment of his rational self, is now free to go home, older and wiser, confident that he no longer has to fear being "eaten up" by these powerful emotions. Even Carol, whose response to abandonment was at first maladaptive destructiveness, can, at the end of the movie, respond appropriately to Max's leaving, by making a point of ceremonially observing and grieving the parting as it happens.

Don't get me wrong — I cried. But I did kinda feel like Dave Eggers and I have seen the same kind of shrink.

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