There’s this scene in Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s storybook, “Where the Wild Things Are,” in which the monsters are having a spirited dogpile. It gets a little raucous, but when the dust settles, Judith quips, “That was fun.” To which, another Wild Thing remarks,
“…We forgot how to have fun.”
And therein lies the moral of a truly simple story. One that’s so simple, that the original Caldecott Medal book was comprised of 10 sentences. But also a story that fueled decades of childhood imaginations (including mine) and for the past year, a hyped (whether overhyped is TBD) frenzy in the hipster sector. I mean, first you have Spike Jonze onboard to direct. The co-owner of Girl Skateboards, Beastie Boys music video fame, Being John Malkovich, co-creator of Jackass… If he’s not the indie favorite, he’s certainly the coolguy’s. You also have Dave Eggers writing, Karen O handling the soundtrack, Lance Bangs doing the HBO featurette.. Dude, get out the smelter, we’re about to whip up some box-office gold.
Was it what I expected? Yes. It’s actually exactly what I had expected, nothing more, nothing less. Was it the best movie of the year? So far, I’d say YES. But that’s not fair, because I’m not measuring this movie by traditional movie standards. (Actually, if you want to look at it that way, it’s probably not a great movie at all). But, it is a remarkable story, and an exercise in capturing the wonderment of childhood. It is about having FUN. And if you’re not so keen on FUN, then I hope you’re still captivated by the breathtaking cinematography, lead Max Records’ unforgettable performance as a first-time actor, and the awesome Wild Things costumes that rival seeing brontosaurs for the first time in Jurassic Park.
In some regards, Jonze had it kinda easy. He has a built-in audience with this movie, 30+ years’ worth. He had Sendak’s blessings, and a shoe-in for Max, and again, with the soundtrack (!!!)… But then he faced a seemingly insurmountable task. Hey Spike, make a feature-length film from a paragraph, a book that was more about fanciful visuals and imagination then hard copy plotline. Take everything that Maurice Sendak envisioned, and all the emotions and reverie and subjective experiences from generations ofWild Things‘ fans, and evoke a bigscreen adaptation from it all. Whatever you do, don’t piss ’em off!! And oh yeah, don’t piss off the rest of the moviegoers who were never Wild Things fans to begin with, the same audiences that are entranced by Michael Bay films, and will be ultimately confused by your story. One more thing, did I mention?? This one’ll make or break your career.
I’m fascinated by children’s storybook authors and illustrators. The ones who do it right are the ones who can transcend all the woes and business that come with adulthood, and remember what it was like to see the world through a child’s eyes. Sendak saw that and captured that. He didn’t have to say much, but he tapped into something visceral that children can appreciate, while their parents just kinda nod their head as if they understand. And I think in this film, Spike Jonze got it also, except he also remembered the dark days that accompany childhood. The heaviness that comes with not knowing, the frustration that arrives from not being heard. This is certainly not a kids’ movie, by traditional standards. The creatures aren’t cuddly, it’s cold, and the trees loom large overhead. There’s a lot of yelling and violence and “grown-up issues” (which I think usually means sex or divorce or something). It’s scary and drawn out and brooding, to be frank, it’s pretty effing emo.
But, to me, it is the consummate kids’ movie. It’s an accurate reflection of my youth as an angry, imaginative, emotional kid. And pretty much all the creative people in this world can say the same. For that, I give Jonze his props.
Yes, we forgot how to have fun. It’s an important message for a downer of a year, mired in economic crises and racist undertones and political muck. We forgot how to have fun, the same fun we had as kids chasing dogs and throwing snowballs and dreaming up stories about far-away worlds. And if you choose (or chose) to watch this movie, at least give Spike and co. credit for that. For an hour-and-a-half, you can leave your property taxes and broken hearts and deadlines at the ticket booth and just… rumpus.
And tell all that other stuff to just “BE STILL!”