Home » Cinema and Television, October 2009

Here Be Wild Things

29 October 2009 660 Views No Comment author: Zach Grizzell


Finally, a children’s movie that respects children.  Or a film that decided it didn’t care if the children/parents seeing it got scared or thought it was too dark and honest. Where the Wild Things Are is unflinching in the concept that children can be treated like adults and stays true to its opening few minutes. This is the third film this year for children that has opened up with a more adult approach. 1  This film, in most people’s heads, shouldn’t even have existed. I mean, the source material is a brisk 10 page children’s book–not to mention all the fighting and reshooting this film went through to get to a final product.  A lot of us skeptics weren’t holding our breaths for this to be released, let alone be untouched by the studios to make it more friendly for families and children.  When some parents asked why the film was so “scary” and “adult,” Maurice Sendak, the author of the book, replied, “I would tell them them to go to hell. That’s a question I will not tolerate.”  That statement got me even more interested in seeing this film.

Where the Wild Things Are opens in the style of the title, a wild and chaotic look at the nature of a child.  Within minutes, we find Max snowball fighting with his sister’s older friends.  The scene ends with them destroying Max’s igloo that he had spent all day making and burying him in it.  There are no apologies, and the only time there was a thought of one, the sister just shrugs it off and leaves him to not only be hurt emotionally, but maybe a little traumatized from being buried in the snow.  He then takes it out on her bedroom, stomping all over her bed with his wet snow boots and ripping up things in her room that he had made for her. Followed swiftly by remorse, followed very swiftly by him and his mother together cleaning up the mess.  Max and his mom have a very close bond, which ignites the whole movie.  For only being in the film for a very limited amount of time, Cathrine Keener is brilliant as the overwhelmed mother trying to manage her family and have some kind of life on her own.  It’s this life on her own that sets off Max on his adventure.  He feels threated by a man that is over for dinner (played by Mark Ruffalo).  The confrontation that happens between Max and his mother is spot on perfect.  We get Max on top of the kitchen counter striving to take back the interest that he feels this outsider has stolen from him.  He yells at the top of his lungs to be fed, stomping his foot because he is hungry. Max just wants attention and at his age doesn’t understand that he won’t be left by the wayside.  But at that age there is really only one thing to do when you feel threatened. Throw a fit and storm off to make mom miss you.

This takes us to the part of the story that everyone is most familiar with.  Max runs away and finds a sail boat.  Which, of course, he knows how to operate.  After a few days, he stumbles upon an island.  Once he has landed he notices lights a ways off, so like any adventurous kid, he investigates.  Stumbling across the island, he decides to confront the Wild Things that he has just discovered.  The most impressive of the group is the Wild Things’ leader of sorts, Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini, best.  The similarities of Carol and Max are evident at once.  Carol feels threated because someone he cares about has left, so to take a page out of Max’s book, he throws a tantrum.  Carol’s group, instead of eating Max, makes him its king after Max slings them a story of grandeur.  My favorite part of this sequence is that when they give Max his crown and staff, they pull it from a group of bones.

Max has a tall order to fill as king.  The Wild Things are depressed and aimless.  They need some guidance, but as you can expect, coming from a child it is a little crazy.  Max’s first act as king is a full on Rumpus through the forest to make everyone feel better.  This entails breaking stuff, hitting each other, and ultimately making a big pile up for a good sleep.  During this pile up we get our first real conversation with Max talking to KW.  KW is a mother figure for Max on the island.  A major influence upon him in the film, she wishes him a good night sleep and calms his nerves.

This film is powered by Max and his ability to make such an outlandish story seem natural.  He tells them they should make this fort for them all to live in and how it will be all great –  only it doesn’t turn out the way he or they want.  The fort-building is sabotaged by a series of falling outs and semi-betrayls between characters.  He tries to fix these issues with good, old-fashioned childhood war games, but feelings and bodies actually get hurt like children would in real life over selection of teams and just downright mean things that happen during the actual event.  Max begins to realize that he not only misses home but that he has been unfair to the people he loves most.  Mainly his mother, but before he goes he has a falling out with his favorite Wild Thing, Carol, that results in him almost getting eaten.  Carol feels betrayed by Max, for not only wanting to leave but for faking being a king and promising him everything he has always wanted.  In the way Max carried himself on screen, through his terror at times, to his mindless glee of getting to play and do things he wants to do;  To the work done on the actual creatures to give them facial expressions and even at times tears, the film really strives to put every emotion on screen.   Where the Wild Things Are doesn’t throw in some light hearted laughter or cute little sewed-together ending to make the viewer feel all safe and happy.  It leaves you thinking about the different Wild Things and what each personality brought to the table that mirrored the adult and child aspects of life.  It wasn’t afraid to scare you, or change course in the middle of something nice and make it downright mean.

This film is one of the most neutral colored film I have ever seen, but that didn’t keep it from being  one of the most stunning films I have seen in quite some time.  The landscape is all dead trees, rolling sand dunes, and rock queries, but  the use of the sun made me gasp at something introduced in every scene.  It was the little things that made me love the look of the film so much.  Jonze put just a hint of color in some scenes: a few orange flowers added into some sticks.  He added water and gave you a eye level view of it as it ran through the scene.  The score of this film was a perfect companion piece for this film.  It was done by Karen O and the Kids, pulsating with an indie alternative style that especially propelled the flow of the movie.

Maurice Sendak can sleep soundly (like Max in KW’s arms) knowing that Spike Jonze did his book justice,  creating something that actually makes you draw parallels between characters, and doesn’t treat the viewer with kid gloves.   There might be those parents that up and left halfway through because it was too “adult” and seemed not to be appropriate for their kids. Hopefully they will watch it down the road and remind their kids how awesome children’s movies could really be.  And like the last shot in the film, an honest look at a parent watching her child fall alseep in silence, I’m done.

Edited by Matt Schneider.

  1. Another Hollywood film this year to do so was Pixar’s Up,  although that film didn’t take to long to get back down to a kid-friendly level with talking dogs that can fly planes.

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