DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze
FEATURING: Max Records, voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara
PLOT: A troubled, rambunctious boy travels to a land where wild beasts anoint him their king, but discovers that socialization is a struggle even in his imagination.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jonze slips a couple of odd visions into this ersatz kiddie fare; watch for the giant dog on the horizon, the friendly stoning of a few owls in flight, and a surprising limb-rending scene. The director fills the frame with scattered cuddly monsters of childhood psychology, but there’s not enough of the frantically irrational here to justify a weird rating.
COMMENTS: It’s been only a few weeks since Where the Wild Things Are‘s release, and the movie already comes with its own critical cliche: this isn’t a children’s movie, it’s a movie about childhood. Like most cliches, there’s truth in the observation, and I have empirical evidence to back it up: I saw the film in the company of a 9 and an 11 year old, and they found it boring. As a boy, I would have found it boring too; there’s not much narrative thrust to the film, and its conflicts are complicated and interpersonal. To a kid, the tale itself is a mundane series of playground antics played out in an exotic setting—Max and his monster pals build a fort, engage in a dirt clod war, and favoritism and hurt feelings take over until someone decides to take their ball and go home—not a magical adventure they can get lost in. They’ll take some delight in beasts themselves, who are attractive and tactile with surprisingly expressive CGI faces: Muppets from the id. But the complex childhood psychology, while fascinating to nostalgic adults, will go right over their heads, the omnipresent womb imagery won’t make a dent in their little psyches, and the melancholy moral about accepting one’s limitations will be hard to absorb.
Each of the wild things Max encounters in his flight of fantasy represents some childhood preoccupation of his, and although it’s easy to see connections between the individual beasties and his real life, the symbolism is complex and mixed-up, just the way a real child’s dreams would be. There isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between each beast and a real life character. Carol, who’s creative (and, like our hero, intensely destructive whenever he feels his creativity is being impinged upon), is Max’s main alter ego, but Carol also seems to represent Max’s absent father. KW, who is drifting away from the family unit to make new friends of her own, is simultaneously Max’s teenage sister and his mom, who has a new boyfriend. Other wild things represent various facets of childhood experience—there’s a goatlike being who complains he’s constantly being ignored, and the cynical horned woman who champions the defeatist voice inside us all. Getting along with these competing aspects of himself proves as difficult to Max as getting along with playmates and family in the real world. It ends as a sort of Jungian tragedy, as Max fails to integrate and harmonize the competing aspects of himself. The closest thing to an epiphany Max achieves is his disillusionment when he abdicates, admitting he’s been lying to these beasts he sought to rule. He’s not a king, or even a great explorer: “I’m just Max.” “Well, that’s not very much, is it?” shoots back his disappointed monster alter-ego, Carol, who longed for a monarch to bring order to their disintegrating fantasyland. Max has no answer to this self-riposte. His only solace is that he has a lifetime left to devise a comeback.
The grapevine says that Warner Brothers pressured Jonze to do some serious reshooting after his initial, even darker cut had tykes in tears at test screenings. It will be interesting to see if the inevitable director’s cut delivers something even more idiosyncratic and uncompromising, maybe even a tad weird.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Max’s dilemma and emotions are distilled to their essence, so the way his real-life suffering informs his dreamscapes becomes unmistakable… more than just a visual feast; it’s a blissful evocation of imagining as a process of spiritual maturation.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine