The critical response to Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers’ treatment of Where the Wild Things Are, the classic 1963 childrens picture book by Maurice Sendak, has been less universal consensus than expected. Mind you, its still positive overall (upper 60% on Rotten Tomatoes), just not the 95% positive I’d expected.
So far the criticisms fall into categories best summed up as “overlong,” “meandering,” and “underwhelming.” Alongside those mentioned, I anticipate the following from some colleagues and friends, “More pop psychology B.S. from Jonze,” “Tried to do too much with too little,” and “It just didn’t do anything for me.”
To preface, so many pseudo-critics easily mistake the purpose of reviewing a film. So much of the “likability” factor in film relies on interpretation, opinion, and cinematic knowledge. These three aspects battle about with each screening, and ultimately the resulting review has nothing to do with “right or wrong.” There is no correct answer to a film, yet so many folks get stuck on these aspects. Interpretation and opinion often conspire to trump cinematic knowledge, or vice-versa, but neither camp is entirely “right.”
A film like Where the Wild Things Are is ripe for this sort of conflict, because it sets out to accomplish a great deal. Subsequently, in my humble opinion, it succeeds.
Sendak’s story serves as an adequate jumping off point. It’s story is simple. A young boy named Max (Max Records) behaves badly one night, is disciplined by his Mother (Catherine Keener), and retreats into his imagination, finding himself on an island inhabited by wild things — creatures who immediately make him their king, threaten to eat him, and drive him to return home with a new-found appreciation for his Mother.
In written form, Sendak provides the skeletal structure to frame the story, but combined with his illustrations forms a subtext that speaks to layers under layers of subtext. For example, why is only Max’s Mother mentioned in the book? It’s not entirely uncommon in children’s short form literature, but Max’s behavior brings this to the forefront. Why the wolf suit? Why the fork? How deep does Max’s imagination go?
These aren’t questions I ask after watching the filmed adaptation, but rather questions I pondered after returning to the book as an adult, reading it to my own daughter. The story, in its own unique way, offers questions for both adults and children to ponder. It’s this foundation upon which Jonze and Eggers chose to build up from.
The film keeps most of this intact, but further explores the subtext that Sendak merely hints at in the book. Here we get a closer look at Max’s home life, not merely the “misunderstood” kid stereotype, or the resentful child of divorce. Those archetypes are too simple, too black and white for real childhood angst. Instead, Max is painted as a child…a real, creative, imaginitive, and caring kid — not one made up of tired Hollywood constructs. Max plays by himself, creating imaginary armies, building forts, launching snow ball campaigns against his sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) and her friends, and all of this is done with good natured fun at the forefront. We enjoy these scenes because Max is enjoying them. We laugh and smile with him as snowballs are hurled in his direction, because the fun of being appreciated and recognized pours from his face. That is, until one of his sister’s friends carries it one step too far, crushing his snow igloo with Max still inside.
Max’s reaction is understandable. Was it wrong? Of course, but they are not presented as the actions of a disturbed child who is “damaged and acting out.” These are the actions of someone nurturing a bruised ego, struggling to find their place, and refusing to accept the growing distance between himself and his sister.
This isn’t to imply that his mother’s divorce hasn’t impacted Max, it’s a factor but not the overall problem. Kids are complicated, and their emotions are complex. Try raising one, I mean really try, and you immediately start to see this daily (hell, hourly). It’s never as simple as “she wronged me,” “he hurt me,” or “he left.” Like adults, these things compound, you live with them and eventually you have moments of weakness. You do or say things you regret. And more importantly, you also have moments of immense clarity. You work through things, you process, and you move forward.
This is what Where the Wild Things Are is all about at it’s very core. One suspects that Max’s coping method post-divorce may have been to fortify his relationsip with his sister and his mother. Now he struggles to get her to check out his snow igloo. This isn’t the only strained relationship in Max’s life, his mother’s foray into a romance keeps her from responding to Max’s request to check out his new fort…that’s also a spaceship.
“The night Max wore his wolf suit, and made mischief of one kind or another” is not the result of acting out in response to a fresh wound, it’s the result of Max’s inability to cope any longer with a life in general. His trip to the island, and the Wild Things he finds there are not simple escapism, but a mechanism through which Max is able to process his anger, frustration, fear, and sadness.
It would be a waste to dig into the finer points of each Wild Things role in metaphoric symbolism. Instead, that is best left for the experience. I will say that Carol (James Gandolfini), Douglas (Chris Cooper), KW (Lauren Ambrose), Ira (Forest Whitaker), Judith (Catherine O’Hara), Alexander (Paul Dano), and The Bull (Michael Berry Jr.) (all half Muppet half computer graphic rendered “wild things”) are remarkably well-rounded characters. Sure, they are manifestations of Max’s subconcious, but they too are complex in motivation and personality.
Several of the film’s detractors seem fixated on the lack of “wonder” or “enchantment” with regards to Carol and the rest of the Wild Things. New Yorker critic David Denby sums this up well in his review:
“Jonze and Eggers have spoken of their desire to keep the film close to a child’s needs, but have they done that? Kids like danger, followed by a release from danger and a return to safety, yet the only danger posed by these creatures is that they will turn Max into someone as messed-up as they are. The filmmakers may have wanted to link Max’s anger to the creatures’ wounds, but the connection is fuzzy—Max isn’t the one who hurt them. I have a vision of eight-year-olds leaving the movie in bewilderment. Why are the creatures so unhappy? That question doesn’t return a child to safety or anywhere else. Of one thing I am sure: children will be relieved when Max gets away from this anxious crew.”
Denby’s oversight is crucial to understanding this film, and personally I’m a bit shocked that more paid critics seem to slip on this tidbit. While the creatures are fully fleshed out characters, they are hardly autonomous of Max. Carol and the rest of the bunch are not “tied” to Max’s emotions, they are manifestations of Max’s emotions by way of his imagination. Ergo, the creatures are unhappy, whiny, angry, and co-dependent because…well, you do the math.
To avoid falling victim to the “overlong” criticism, I’ll move to a motivating factor for my review. The film has been equally criticized for its “pop-psychology” take on Max and its “not a kids movie” approach. I screened Where the Wild Things Are with my wife Denise, an MFT, and my 2 and a 1/2 year old Amelie. Their individual takes on the experience debunks these claims. Denise related to Max’s portrayal, identifying the psychological aspects and interpretations of his behavior, his process, and the importance of the Wild Things he encounters developmentally. My daughter on the other hand was able to follow Max’s trajectory, relating to his behavior, feeling for the emotions displayed, and ultimately following along with a film that wasn’t stuffed to the hilt with attention sucking action sequences. The experience challenged all three of us (plus Dee’s sister Rachel who also watched it with us), without ever becoming a challenge. Name one other film that so adequately represents these elements in a fashion accessible to a toddler and a well studied adult without pandering to either.
And perhaps this is where Jonze and Eggers failed. They didn’t succeed in making a kids movie, that is, a movie catering to the perception of kids today. Instead they succeeded in creating a film that speaks to adults and children alike, without the feeling of sacrificing one for the other.
I greatly prefer, and appreciate, the latter.