[To my tens of dozens of readers: Below I discuss in detail my reactions to the new Where the Wild Things Are movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, there may be a few spoilers in here. Most people are familiar with the broad sweeps of Max’s journey in his wolf suit, but I’ll be directing my icy, critical gaze on many of the additions Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers made to the story in order to transform a picture book into a feature film.]
So Fandango has a feature in which users try to communicate their intense or not-so-intense feelings for a movie in five words. Most users seem to suggest — in their awkward phrases riddled with typos and bad grammar — relatively positive reactions to Where the Wild Things Are, adapted from Maurice Sendak’s picture book by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers.
My five word review? Sucked out all the joy.
I purchased my ticket for the movie knowing both that the film would necessarily expand upon the book in significant ways and that it was not particularly meant for kids. Sure, it would attract the elementary set, but any savvy studio would know that adults who grew up reading Sendak’s book and poring over its cross-hatched illustrations would be lining up at the AMC. And I had heard some grumbling on the part of Jonze that it wasn’t a movie for kids! It wasn’t a movie for adults! It was a film! Or some such pretentiousness.
Regardless of the audience or purpose of the movie, what I did expect was some loyalty to what I consider to be the most powerful elements of the book.* This is a story about a boy who negotiates and, quite literally, navigates through some pretty crappy circumstances — left undisclosed in the book but explained in really a quite touching way in the movie — through his imagination. The great thing about exploring an island full of bird-legged, sharp-toothed monsters and declaring yourself of royal blood is that you can exert a degree of control. Sure, life among the wild things isn’t always what Max expected, but the difference between his time in the wild and his time in his bedroom at home, forced into the humiliation of unfair time-out, is that in the forest he can manage and transform his world. When you’re small, like Max, you control very little. Sendak’s book has let millions of readers in on the secret that they can imagine alternate circumstances.
But Max in this movie has no control. When he arrives on the island of the wild things, he finds himself swept up in the petty politics of a claustrophobic community of whiners, imbeciles, and head cases. These are not wild things of the charmingly and perhaps a little frighteningly chaotic sort. Their gnashing of teeth is not some excess of savage license. They’re violent because they are deeply unhappy, lonely, and depressed. They roll their eyes out of cruel sarcasm. They call each other names and throw dirt clods at one another. They literally tear off one another’s arms. (This somehow got a lot of laughs, which I don’t understand.) Max declares himself king, but the wild rumpus that follows — a chaos of shaky cinematography that pales in comparison to the moonlight parade of the book — is only over for a moment when the sinking depression returns and the annoying in-fighting commences. He doesn’t love me anymore. She took my stick. You’re cheating, and I’m going to take my rumpus and go home. Oh, and on my way out, I’m going to step on your face. Literally.
The awkward tension only grows, and things finally are so insupportable that Max decides to call it quits and leave the island. If he stays, the popcorn-eating viewer concludes, surely he will have to commit suicide. Exit, indeed, is the best option. So Max leaves in defeat, longingly gazing at the downtrodden and slumped form of Carol, who is left abandoned and weeping among a mismatched crew of monsters who hate his guts. (I tremble to think of what happened to Carol, who really is one of the most pitiable movie muppets in the history of cinema. Someone please give him a cookie. And some Prozac.)
What bothers me is that Max’s departure is not a willful decision. This is not Max exerting his independence and understanding that yes, it is time to return to reality and deal with life outside the wolf suit. This is surrender. It’s the sad realization that even in an environment that he imagined himself, he cannot make things right. Or better. Or well-scripted. I don’t need everything to end in buttercups and sunshine, but complete and utter demoralization? Unnecessary.
Before anyone accuses me of slacker movie-viewing, I would like to say that yes, I get it. The dysfunction of the wild things mimics the dysfunction in Max’s life! Aha! But if that’s the case, then how am I supposed to interpret Max’s time on the island? While he indeed returns home at the end of the movie to a cozy meal of warm soup, rich cake, and cold milk, a nice throw-back to the final page of the picture book, I don’t understand why his time mediating ridiculous monster-vendettas made him any more comfortable with returning to a broken home and a bully sister. Having Max tip back the hood of his wolf suit and smile shyly at his sleeping mother doesn’t cut it. I want answers.
I also understand that psychoanalytic critics could have a good time picking apart this movie. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of psychoanalytic literary analysis, and children’s literature is often subject to what I think are ridiculous claims that use the word “psyche” and “phallus” and “subconscious” far too frequently. I suppose, however, that a psychoanalytic lens might explain that uncomfortable scene where the maternal (or sororal? I couldn’t tell) wild thing named KW devours Max, hiding him from the bloodthirsty Carol, only to pull him out of her innards a few minutes later, slippery with saliva, in a weird childbirth-esque scene. (So Max is reborn… into the same position of helplessness and despair). Psychoanalysis might also explain some of the completely illegible elements of the movie. Why, I ask, does this same KW befriend two owls named Bob and Terry? And why does she get their attention by throwing rocks at them and watching them plummet to the beach? Eh? What’s going on here?
So, yeah, I hated it. NO JOY. There should be some joy in Where the Wild Things Are, right? I will concede only a few pros. The beginning sequence, in which a crazy Max chases his dog through his house, was great. And the frame of Max’s home life was good. When a gang of mean teenagers destroy Max’s snow fort, I almost lost it. Good job, boy-who-plays-Max. And visually the move was really cool. The monsters were duly impressive, and the miniature world that Carol builds — a model of mountains and rivers and mini wild things that could have been the centerpiece of a better movie — was perfect.
But yeah. Mostly suck. Thanks for scarring my childhood self, Jonze and Eggers.
* I don’t speak for Sendak. From what I’ve read, he is supportive of this interpretation of his book.