Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are gets the feature film treatment from Spike Jonze.  I looked up Jonze in IMDB and discovered that the bulk of his directorial work has been in music videos and short documentaries about skateboarding, and of course Being John Malkovich which is a classic.  He is also listed as a screenwriter and producer Jackass.  For those who don’t remember, Jackass was a TV series on MTV, where a crew of stupid 20 somethings would perform idiotic stunts.  They made two movie, neither of which got very good reviews.  This surprised me because Jonze has such a good reputation in the Indie world.  Why would he get involved with such a dubious enterprise?

Thinking about it though, it is actually an apt pairing. Sendak has always been one of those children’s authors who reflects rather than teaches. This has gotten him in a lot of trouble with censors over the years. Where the Wild Things Are is a tribute to the anarchic energy of childhood. Max, dressed in a wolf suit and on a rampage of misbehavior is sent to his room without supper. From there he goes to a magic island inhabited by monsters, who make him their king. He leads them on a wild rumpus and everything is great for awhile. Soon, however, things start falling apart and Max sees that there are reasons for rules, so he returns to his family. Okay, so maybe Sendak teaches a little bit. But there is definitely a parallel between Max and the men-children in Jackass, who apparently never learned the lessons that Max absorbed in a little over 300 words.

To flesh out the spare story, Jonze turns to the monsters, giving them names, personalities and motivation. There is conflict in the group, KW, voiced by Lauren Ambrose has left and Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini is angry because KW was his best friend.  When Max, played by Max Records, enters the situation, he instantly identifies with the sulking and defiant Carol. At first the other monsters want to eat Max, but he talks his way out of it, promising to protect them and and make them happy. So they make him their king. But of course, he can’t do any of the things he promised and soon the groups internal dissension starts tearing them apart again.

One of the things that make me unsure about this film is it’s look. For a film based on a book with such lush and stylized illustrations, they chose to go with very mundane looking sets and locations. The monsters look great and their island, with it’s jungles and deserts is beautiful but hardly magical. Also the cinematography is dark and somewhat grainy. The colors are muted and the lighting is unimaginative. Since this is not an indie film made by amateurs, I assume this look was Jonze’s choice and part of his message. The monster part of the story is the fevered imagining of a fertile but undisciplined imagination. So maybe it would make sense to include these fantastic characters in a mundane setting. And yet Sendak didn’t do that in the book, so I’m not sure Jonze made the right choice. To me, it jolted.

There’s also the problem of intended audience. Wild Things is a picture book, intended for the youngest of readers. This movie will scare those tots to death. They should not see it. For example Carol, Max’s best friend among the monsters has a temper and one point chases Max across the island with murderous intent. A four year old isn’t going to react well to the cute and cuddly monster trying to kill the kid hero of the story. And yet they are going to want to see it because of the title.  I can see problems here.

On the other hand, Where the Wild Things Are is better than the awful Dr. Seuss adaptations that have cropped up recently, and I think Sendak, who is listed as a producer on the film, would scoff at my worries about terrifying young kids. Life is dangerous and scary and you can’t always shield kids from it. And that line between safety and freedom is what the book and movie are all about. So maybe I shouldn’t complain.


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October 2009
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