Spike Jonze is known for making uncomfortable films — I still can't think about the ending of Being John Malkovitch without squirming — but Where The Wild Things Are may be his coldest comfort yet. Major spoilers below...
Let's get this out of the way right away: Jonze's Wild Things is only an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book in the loosest possible sense. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Jonze, whose Adaptation was a dissertation on the impossibility of adapting a literary work to film, has treated the Sendak book as a mere jumping-off point. There are only a handful of incidents in Sendak's book, but at least half of them don't appear in the movie. Instead of using the book's spare narrative as a framework and adding to it, the movie mostly creates a new story from scratch.
In a way, WTWTA is the polar opposite of Watchmen: Zack Snyder faced a 12-book magnum opus of graphic storytelling, and tried to distill it to three hours without losing anything essential or changing anything (except the ending.) Jonze takes Sendak's twelve sentences and expands them to 100 minutes of incidents. And yet, both films wind up feeling lovely but a bit empty, triumphs of gorgeous imagery over substance.
This review is not going to tell you whether Wild Things is good, or whether you'll like it — after talking to tons of people who've seen the movie, I've come to the conclusion that this is such an idiosyncratic, strange movie that it's impossible to predict whether you'll like it or not. So far, everybody I've talked to has either loved it or hated it — and I have a feeling that sharp divide will be the norm. It also may be the sort of movie that you'll only fully appreciate on a third viewing, with the right substances in the mix. (If you want to read an unreservedly rave review of the movie, check out Entertainment Weekly's.)
Wild Things is not a movie about a little boy who wants to be wild, traveling (in his fantasy, or via magic) to a strange land full of monsters who make him their king and let him be as wild as he wants, until he gets homesick. Rather, Wild Things is a movie about the terrors and insecurities of childhood, and the monsters we all have inside of us. It presents an unnerving portrait of childhood as a stormy, exhilerating time, in which play is intensely serious and important, and loneliness is the biggest nightmare of them all.
Max, who's around ten, lives with his divorced mom, who's slowly failing at her job and barely making ends meet thanks to her shitty absentee ex-husband. She's dating a new guy, whom Max hates. Meanwhile, Max's older sister, Claire, who used to be his friend, has stopped hanging out with him because she's trying to get in with a cool crowd at school. Max acts out, trying to get people to pay attention to him, but it only makes matters worse — so finally, Max screams "feed me, woman!" at his mom, in front of her new boyfriend, and then actually bites her. He's sent to his room, but he runs away from home, until he finds a boat, which takes him to the land of the Wild Things.
Whether you love or hate this movie will depend most on how you feel about the Wild Things, who are sort of weird and totemic. They look like the creatures in Sendak's book — until they open their mouths.
What comes out of the Wild Things' mouths is a stream of complaints and bitter observations, punctuated by moments of extreme, shining whimsy. It keeps you off guard: The monsters, one and all, seem miserable, upset and perennially disappointed by life, but then they come out with cute, occasionally hilarious lines. While the monsters serve to amplify the conflicts, anxieties and destructive glee inside of Max, they don't really feel like aspects of a child's psyche to me — they come across more like emotionally stunted, narcissistic middle-aged people.
I didn't realize the main monster, Carol, was voiced by James Gandolfini until after I saw the film, because i saw a super-early screening and hadn't read much press before hand. So to me, Carol just sounded like a cranky, neurotic old guy with anger issues. At times during the main body of the story, I felt like I was sitting on a particularly long therapy session in a group home, or a Seinfeld episode with fewer jokes.
On the other hand, other people I've talked to who've seen the movie found the Wild Things much more convincing, and compelling, as aspects of Max's inner life, made real and massive. So your mileage may indeed vary.
But whatever you think they are, it's made clear that the Wild Things form an utterly dysfunctional family, one where you sense the same arguments have been going on for decades and will continue for decades more. Carol is upset because another one of the monsters, K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) has decided to leave the group and go spend time with her new friends, who turn out to be weird owls that you have to hit with rocks before you can talk to them. Carol is bursting with resentment and neediness, and when we first meet him he's trashing the other Wild Things' houses like an alcoholic, abusive dad. K.W., meanwhile, just acts like she's sick of everyone's shit.
Then there are two other Wild Things, Judith and Ira, who constantly feel neglected and marginalized within the group — Judith complains every few moments that whatever activities the gang of monsters does, she and her companion are pushed to the side. Nobody cares what they think, nobody pays attention to them, etc. There's also a big bull, who's sort of bull-like.
Here's the scene where we get introduced to some of them, and Judith is like "Oh, you don't need to know me, I'm kind of a downer." The tree-destroying thing is cute, though, as is the tongue thing:
So, yeah... dysfunctional family of losers. Who are depressed. A lot.
But it's not all anhedonia — a big point of the film is that Max shows up and shakes up the monsters' dreadful staleness, becoming their King and giving them a whole bunch of new games to play. "We'll take care of each other, and sleep together in a real pile," Max says. Unlike the people in Max's real life, these monsters pay attention to him and are curious about him, and sort of become his minions.
When Max convinces the Wild Things that he's a King, and that he was a King among the Vikings for twenty years already, it's a brilliantly whimsical scene. Max Records, as Max, shines the most in these quirky moments where's spinning a line of amazing B.S., talking about his crazy super-powers and his amazing leadership skills. The "let the Wild Rumpus begin!" sequence is severely fun and insane, culminating in a crazed puppy pile. And later, when Max concocts a crazy scheme to build a huge fort, with a crime lab and spy gadgets and all sorts of other weird superhero/scifi touches, he's the total nerd-kid avatar, with a team of monsters doing his manic bidding.
But you sort of know, all along, that this whole "king" thing will not turn out well — and that's the biggest departure from the book. Forget the fact that the movie dispenses with the book's "bedroom turns into wild jungle" sequence — the biggest change is that it's much clearer that Max is a failed king, and the monsters end up hating him. This happens partly because Max decides to split the monsters into "good guys" and "bad guys," drawing them into a war fought with dirt clods, which quickly turns ugly. Max makes Judith and Ira into "bad guys," exacerbating their persecution complex, and you can just see in this clip the beginning of things going South:
Sorry to give away so much of the movie's plot — this really isn't a movie you'd go see for the plot, though. It's much more about the weird little touches and character quirks, the lush visuals, and the blaring-loud, wordless score by Karen O. and Carter Burwell.
As I said in the beginning, this movie offers the coldest comfort of any film in Spike Jonze's career. It feels like a journey into sheer dysphoria — Max's home life is unrelentingly horrendous, and when he escapes to a fantasy land, it turns out to be even worse. The film's message seems to be that life sucks, growing up sucks, and most of all, any attempt to escape into wildness or fantasy will only turn out even suckier.
I don't think WTWTA is too scary for small children — but I suspect it may be too nihilistic. Teenagers and tweens, though, may love it.
The film reinforces its dark message with an unblinking stare aimed at blank landscapes. When we first meet Max in the "real" world, the world is blanketed with snow, and Jonze's camera zooms in on the unrelenting whiteness. Max builds a snow fort and hides inside, and he appears to be in a blinding snow tunnel. When Max travels to the land of the Wild Things, at first he's in that famous forest/jungle setting, but the film quickly moves to the blank dunes of the Melbourne area, where Jonze filmed. The landscape is meant to reflect the moods of Max and the Wild Things, which grow increasingly joyless and unrelenting.
Here's a bit where Carol and Max walk through a desolate landscape, and Carol talks about how the landscape used to be rocks, and now it's sand, and soon it'll be dust, and who knows what comes after dust? And then Max says the sun is going to die, and Carol tries to put a brave face on that piece of info:
(The film's visuals, it must be said, really are incredible — the film has brilliant design, from the monsters to their weird circular wicker-like buildings.)
If you think of this as a kids' movie, you'll be sadly disappointed. If you think of it as an adventure film, you'll be puzzled. But think of it as a continuation of Jonze's first two movies, and it makes perfect sense. Like Malkovich and Adaptation, WTWTA is about someone who's uneasy in his own skin — Max literally seeks liberation by donning his wolf costume, and this leads him to his adventure — and like the heroes of Malkovich and Adaptation, Max discovers, the hard way, that being someone else is no solution to his problems, but also that it's a kind of trap.
The main difference is that Wild Things feels much more surreal than those first two films, thanks to the weird Jim Henson/CG creatures. And it's about a kid, rather than a thirtysomething or fortysomething guy. In a sense, Wild Things does for the coming-of-age tale what Jonze's first two movies do for the midlife crisis/second chance story: strip away the candy coating on the fantasy to reach the pure existential crisis beneath, and show how insoluble that crisis really is.