Kicking the Tweets
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Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Beasts, Unburdened

"Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded."

--Baz Luhrmann, Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen

People often ask me if I go into some movies predisposed to hate them; to which I’ll ask if they go into some movies predisposed to love them. I often find myself in the contrarian role when it comes to film opinion, but it’s not like I revel in sitting through boring, uninspired movies—most of them are two hours long, you know, which is a considerable chunk of time to spend doing anything unpleasant (and since I have a strict “no walk-outs” policy, I reserve the right to savage any filmmaker who subjects me to a modern-day Ludovico treatment). No, I give every movie as fair a shake as I can manage.

That’s not to say it’s always easy. I’ve been subjected to the awful trailers and hipster hype surrounding Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are for months. From the Arcade Fire song to the cute “hand-drawn” titles and aimless shaky-cam running shots, I rolled my eyes in frustration every time I saw one of these commercials. When I found out that novelist Dave Eggers—our generation’s Potentate of Pretension—co-authored the film, I almost killed myself (Eggers and Jonze are separately responsible for two of the most unpleasant moviegoing experiences I’ve had this decade: Being John Malkovich and Away We Go). Driving to the theatre yesterday, I’d given up any hope at objectivity and began to view this screening as a science experiment: could Where the Wild Things Are win me over despite my disdain for everything and everyone involved?

The answer is an enthusiastic, “Yes!” I loved this movie. Strangely, though, I found it to be very unpleasant in parts, and both my wife and I fell into profound funks for the rest of the day.

Let me begin by saying that this is not a movie for kids. It’s based on a classic children’s book, sure, and stars the adorable Max Records, but Where the Wild Things are is as much a kids’ film as Fritz the Cat. There were a lot of kids in the theatre we went to; some of the older ones seemed fine, but the rest were either restless or downright frightened (Parents, if your kid starts whining that they’re too scared to watch a movie, please take them out of the theatre and go see something else; don’t, for the love of Christ, lie and tell them, “It’s almost over, honey”; especially if there’s forty minutes left to go and your terrified tyke is kicking my seat in frustration). This is a movie about childhood that’s for adults, and the distinction is very important.

If you’ve read Maurice Sendak’s book (as I did for the first time after returning home from the film), you know the basic story. An unruly kid named Max travels to a far-away land where he runs wild with a group of weird, hairy beasts and returns home in time for supper. In the book, the Wild Things’ jungle sprouts up in Max’s bedroom, clearly a product of his imagination; in the movie, Max runs away from home after a nasty fight with his mother (Katherine Keener) and appears to board an actual boat that takes him to a mysterious island. Were you to plot out the rest of the film you could do so in just a few sentences. The story has little forward momentum in terms of traditional adventure movies; Where the Wild Things Are is about the kind of excitement that an imaginative nine-year-old boy can have all by himself: rolling down hills, building forts and having mud ball fights with friends.

This, I think, is why many have labeled this film “boring”. It’s a puzzling accusation considering this is one of the deepest, darkest movies I’ve seen in awhile. Jonze and Eggers take Sendak’s idea of Max acting out his wild fantasies and expand it to paint a disturbing psychological portrait of a boy in a broken home. The creatures stand in not for people in Max’s life, but for the emotions roiling around inside; the Wild Things bicker and fight and are sometimes intolerable, but they are honest interpretations of youthful angst. I loved that Max was not made out to be a hero in his own mind. In fact, his own petulance and rage turn against him in the end and he’s forced to leave the island. You’ll need to experience the film to find out what Max’s departure means, but trust me: there’s nothing boring about this journey.

Particularly impressive is James Gandolfini as Carol, the most prominent Wild Thing and a representation of Max's ego. In the trailers, it's hard to get the actor's Tony Soprano character out of your head, but in the context of the film, it's clear there's no better choice. In fact, Gandolfini incorporates an aspect of Soprano's personality in giving voice to Carol, that of the TV mobster's private persona, the one who's vulnerable and kind of whiny in therapy. His fragile personality--tender in one instant, violently destructive in the next--is encapsulated in a hulking fur suit that evokes terror more often than cuddliness; which is why landing the right actor to give the character life is so vital. If there's an Oscar to be given for voice work, Gandolfini's a shoe-in.

I should say that if you’re on the fence about whether or not to see Where the Wild Things Are in the theatre, I beg you to run out and catch it on the big screen. There’s nothing small-scale about the picture; though Jonze evokes The Wizard of Oz early on, by keeping Max’s home-life relatively claustrophobic in framing before opening up to sprawling deserts and seascapes in the island scenes.

As I mentioned before, this movie affected me heavily. It’s so evocative of childhood and even the primal nature of man that I felt as if I’d spent an hour-and-a-half in regression therapy. Granted, I, too, come from a broken home, but my wife was susceptible to Jonze’s and Eggers’ subliminal shout-outs to awkward adolescence. The experience recalls the scene from Fight Club where Tyler Durden spliced a frame of pornography into Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—kids in the audience freaked out and cried without consciously knowing why. Even leaving that aside, there are some harsh moments in the picture that I won’t ruin here, but they elicited genuine gasps from me, and that rarely happens.

Where the Wild Things Are is a ballsy film that treats children as actual human beings, and it wouldn’t surprise me if older kids discovered the picture and made it a classic. It’s the kind of movie one could come back to at different stages in life and draw new perceptions from each time (does that technically make it an “all-ages” movie?). Whatever gripes I have with Jonze’s and Eggers’ adult work, they have nailed what it means to be a kid—at least a certain kind of kid—and I’m happy to say that they beaned my preconceived notions with a mud ball.

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