Oct 19 2009

Where the Wild Things Are is Anything But a Cliched Movie for Kids

Published by at 9:00 am under Movies,Reviews

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Writing a review of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is going to be pretty difficult.  I imagine that Jonze’s film is will prove to be quite polarizing, with about half the people opining that Jonze failed to capture the atmosphere contained in Maurice Sendak’s children’s book, and the other half praising the film for its uncompromising presentation of adolescence and the uncertainty that comes with it.  Fortunately, Paul is going to review WTWTA for its merits as a film.  Instead of writing a traditional review, I’m going to try my best to address the film’s central messages, none of which struck me as particularly uplifting.  Very minor spoilers ahead.

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I think that Where the Wild Things Are isn’t a movie for children.  I’m not saying that kids can’t enjoy this movie – they’ll undoubtedly be entertained by the gorgeous environments and surreal creatures – but the tone and portrayal of childhood make this movie one that’s geared towards adults or, perhaps more appropriately, former children.  Jonze successfully reminds us of what it was like to be a misunderstood kid – not by showing us Max’s toys or the type of television that Max watches, but by showing us how Max behaves and how he entertains himself when his mother or sister are too busy working to pay him any mind.  It’s not G.I. Joe figures or Saturday morning cartoons that help us remember what it was like when we were kids; it’s building forts, running and screaming for no reason in particular, and becoming completely immersed in whichever imaginary situation we may have created.  Material objects and the creations of others (i.e., television) didn’t make us kids – it’s the primal, uninhibited way we used to get lost in our own imaginations that did.  We all watched different cartoons and played with different toys, but we all ran around screaming to the dismay of our frustrated parents.

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The running and screaming isn’t all fun, though, and as we former kids know, it often comes with punishment, discipline, and resentment.  The emotions of a child are tempestuous, and many of us can remember swearing off our parents or siblings forever, only to hug them with tears in our eyes mere hours later.  Jonze recognizes this, and when Max bites his mother, we know that he’s not a bad kid.  He’s just, well, a kid.  WTWTA not only examines that aspect of childhood, it tells us that eventually, the worst parts of being a child simply morph into worse problems during adulthood.  Instead of the cliched approach to children that we see so often (losing yourself as an adult and reverting back to a carefree, simple mentality of a child), WTWTA offers a more hardened, uncompromising approach, and suffice to say, it’s somewhat depressing.

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Jonze twice examines the concept of the sun dying (somewhat reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall), and the realization of death by Max shakes his perception of the world.  The idea of death has a profound effect on Max (and Carol, whose metaphorical representation of Max should be obvious to anyone), as he’s at the age where one really begins to understand the gravity and finality of death.  And it’s here where WTWTA strays quite a bit from the traditional children’s movie and is instead an examination of childhood, complete with nihilistic and existential undertones.  If the sun will die, and life as we know it will inevitably end, then what’s the point?  WTWTA doesn’t quite answer this question, but the film is honest enough to say that nobody really knows.  It’s a dire situation for anyone and everyone, and even worse, escaping into the fantasy of one’s imagination offers little refuge.

Max’s escape to the land of the Wild Things, while a brief improvement from his current situation, doesn’t change anything for the better.  In fact, even in his imagination Max’s troubles follow him, and it becomes clear that frustration and confusion are inescapable aspects of childhood.  We tend to remember the great parts about being a kid, but Jonze tells us that it wasn’t all that great to begin with.  The Wild Things are arguably worse off than before Max had found him, and Max travels home to the real world where frustration and confusion are bound to manifest once again.  Max’s departure can be seen as a symbol of growing up and moving on, and he realizes that all the dreams and hopes he had will never come true, not for him nor for anyone else.  Does WTWTA say that being a kid was miserable, growing up is miserable, and none of it matters anyway since we’re all doomed?  Maybe not so explicitly, but I think the message is there.  Jonze’s outlook on life can be considered Kafka-esque, making WTWTA a brutally honest film.

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I think WTWTA was very well-made, and Jonze’s competence as a director is apparent.  To take a children’s book – one with just 12 sentences, no less – and turn it into a film that will undoubtedly leave some sort of impression on its audience is a commendable feat.  That said, the movie makes a better discussion topic than it does a couple hours of entertainment and, despite some of the breathtaking visuals, I don’t know that I’d want to sit through this again.  It’s by no means a bad movie, it’s just so different than what we’ve become accustomed to.  I have a strong suspicion that WTWTA will become a cult-classic of sorts, as well as one of the more polarizing films we’ve seen in quite some time.  The messages and themes in Jonze’s movie are apparent and warrant discussion.  It’s just somewhat unsettling, I suppose, that these themes were drawn from a children’s book.  I can’t recommend this movie, nor can I tell you to avoid it.  I’d say it’s worth watching once, though, simply for its uncompromising approach to childhood, growing up, and our place in the universe.





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4 responses so far

  • Korinthian

    I don’t like how people assume that books/movies for children should be dumbed down, or that “it’s a movie aimed towards kids” is an excuse for a crappy movie (I’m looking at you, George Lucas).

    Also, I don’t think looking at childhood through the eyes of an adults gives us a fair representation of that time as a kid. Much of what made it so great being a kid was that you didn’t have all the adult baggage and preconceptions. So if you look at your childhood with your now more cynical eyes, it’s not the same at all.

    I never read this book, so I’m not really in a hurry to see it, but I suspect I will see it in the future.

  • illeaturfamily

    good review.

    i wanted to see this movie on friday but the girlfriend hindered those plans.

    anyhow, i am seriously looking forward to this movie solely because of the visuals. i love movies that take you to another place, and it seems like WTWTA literally does that. the messages, themes, and overall content of the movie are a bonus for me.

  • Madison

    @ Korinthian:

    Definitely agree. The Dark Crystal comes to mind as a kids’ movie that was done right.

    But I don’t agree about looking back at childhood with adult eyes. We tend to remember the great parts, but as Jonze portrays Max, he had a lot of hard times as a kid. So did I, so did all of us in some way. I felt that was poignant.

    @ illeaturfamily

    Visually, it’s great. The themes make the visuals actually mean something, and serve as giving the film some depth instead of just 2 hours of eye candy.

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