Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Spoiler Alert

All of the hullabaloo about how Where the Wild Things Are is too scary for kids seems to have missed one key factor: it is far more boring than it is scary. During the showing we went to there were about six kids from about ages 6 to 10 sitting near us and by the time it got to the really violent sequences none of the kids were even looking at the screen because they (like me) had lost interest about five minutes after Max reached the island.

I am part of the multiple generations that grew up on the illustrations of Maurice Sendak. Granted we all remember the illustrations more than the story, and they did sort of terrify me, but I was still really excited to see it come to life. My husband and I were lucky enough to get to explore the Where the Wild Things Are exhibit at the Sony Metreon back in 2002. We were the only people there and made quite the rumpus because they really got it right - right down to the shading on the palm trees.

I was particularly excited for the movie because it was costumes and not CGI (at least mostly) - and in that aspect it certainly did not disappoint. But if all a movie has to offer is aesthetics you only really need to watch the trailer, which had all of the most visually appealing snippets, anyway.

As Jezebel noted, the book is short - really short. The part that has etched itself in our cultural memory is the illustrations (what the Metreon exhibit got oh-so right). So, maybe pretty landscapes and neat costumes are all we should expect. Unfortunately, however, I think the movie doesn't just not get the book right, it does it - and it's viewers - a disservice.

The sections that have been deemed too scary for kids are not scary because of the terrible teeth and claws. They are scary because Jonze and Eggers could not decide who the wild things were. Sendak based them on his foreign adult relatives (which is a whole other problem to dissect), but in the movie they are sometimes adults with romantic relationships and sometimes whiny children with hurt feelings.

Sure, part of the process of growing up is realizing that adults usually are whiny children with hurt feelings, but in this case those adults enact an abusive relationship. The wild things' size, knowledge of the island, and interpersonal relationships position them as adults through most of the film (as do their names typical of a generation older than Max), and while Max once or twice growls them into submission, he spends most of the movie watching them physically and emotionally hurt one another with the fear that they will harm him.

Then of course there is the infamous line, "I'll eat you up I love you so." The only emotion we have had up until that point is anger and insecurity, so what has come to be a marker of the movie's "take away" (that we love our children even if we must discipline them? That we love them despite their sometimes justified though inappropriately enacted anger? Your guess is as good as mine) is not actually in the movie. In perhaps the most disturbing and strange and wtf!?! moment in modern cinema, the character (KW) that says it does in fact eat him up in order to protect him.

But, if we decide to go with it as a metaphor based on the movie until that point, then it seems the lesson we are supposed to take away is that maternal figures (who KW is positioned as) will do anything to protect their child from an abusive father figure (Carol). Moreover, that kind of love is smothering since Max can't breathe and is pulled out covered in bile and spit, though the raccoon who is also hanging out there seems to be fine. Told you it was weird.

But again, the most disappointing part was that it was just plain boring. Once you have seen the costumes, learned that war games always end in tears, and watched the wild things whine and lose their tempers and hurt each others feelings in the exact same way five times, your mind wanders: In my husband's case, about the mother's agonizing worry over her child running away (the only part that diverged from the ten sentences of text, and the only part Sendak did not particularly like) and my related concern that Max must have been starving.

Of course Sendak seems to be really happy with the Jonze/Eggers interpretation of his beloved book, so maybe I should just "go to hell" and go see that other childrens book they have taken liberties with. But, I can't remember ever wanting to leave a movie half way through simply because I was bored. Nor have I left a movie disturbed by strange (lack-of) character development (no, more snow and dirt clod fights, but we can still throw rocks at owls?), and upset that I had just wasted all that time sitting there, since even crappy action movies keep your attention. Sadly, the only redeeming factor of the viewing was that we patronized our local historic theater.

Image via JSYK.


  1. interesting review. i love that you point out the relationships of the wild things, and how KW takes on a maternal role for max.

    however, I didn't find it boring. and i actually read each of the wild things as being max--each one representing a different part of him (or his angst).

    i was crying by the end of the movie, and i can't let myself believe that i got so emotionally invested in something boring. but then i can understand if someone else found it so.

  2. I know I read the book as a kid. But I must not have been too thrilled with it, because I know it wasn't one of my favorites. I can't remember much of it either.

    Honestly my memories of "Cloudy w/a chance of meatballs" are MUCH more vivid, and I know I liked that book. I just wish these films would be traditionally animated... I mean WHY would you take a children's illustrated book and not make a kid's movie in the same style?

  3. Dave Eggers also wrote a short story on the concept - 'Max at Sea' - published in the New Yorker. It was an interesting idea that maybe should have stayed an idea. I might see this film; indeed, the Jonz/Eggers combination is almost irresistible.

  4. I haven't taken Big J to see it yet but not because I worried that he would be scared but more for a few of the points you have stated above. We haven't seen it because from everything I read I thought he would get bored with the storyline. Even from the trailers it seemed more of an introspective adult movie about relationships and not necessarily a child's movie.

    We'll rent it and I'll let him watch it for the pure enjoyment of letting him see these characters come to life. But knowing Big J...he'll be asking when the next fight scene is going to happen and not care much about who represents who or the relationship between Max and his mother.

    Thanks for the review!

  5. Love your review, Stephanie!

    I saw WTWTA soon after it came out (in IMAX, no less) and left the theater feeling uncomfortable and disappointed. I hadn't read too much about it and I suppose I expected something faster and uplifting. I expected a kid's movie since it was a kid's book. Instead it was dry and depressing. And the violence did creep me out - especially the owl and Douglas' arm.

    The visuals were great. I loved that the CGI was kept to a minimum (it was only used beacause the original mechanical heads were too heavy for the actors).

    Guess I'll go to hell with you.


be nice.


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