Where the Wild Things Are was made with all crazy kinds of passion. Director Spike Jonze imbues every moment with a sense of vision, long gestating. It’s a movie with lovingly crafted images. Unfortunately though, passion is often woefully not enough. Movie history is filled with works of deep feeling that simply don’t work and now history, sadly, has a whole new chapter.
Wild Things tells the story of Max, a boy who feels lonely and hopelessly misunderstood. His older sister and her friends don’t play fair when he picks a snowball fight. They even smash his igloo, with him inside, leaving him in tears. His mom is too busy with work and her boyfriend to fix him “real” corn, just dreaded frozen corn. After biting his mom on the arm, he runs away.
Dashing through dark neighborhood streets and then through even darker woods, he ends up at the edge of a sea where a boy-sized boat awaits his arrival. He sets sail and bravely battles rough weather and violent waves to arrive in a special land where boys can be boys – and, more importantly, boys can be kings.
This land where the wild things are is filled with creatures, big, fuzzy, rambunctious creatures that love doing things like jumping on houses, smashing them to bits. It’s a fantasy version of Max’s recent travails at home, only now he is in charge and gets to orchestrate a massive dirt clod battle like a mad general rather than end up on the losing end.
Max finds himself in a world with nobody to tell him to get off the kitchen counter and where he can eat anything he likes. And I imagine that all sounds like good fun. It sure does to me. So, what went wrong?
Here, novelist Dave Eggers expands the slim children’s book into a full length movie. Now, don’t get me wrong. Eggers is a fabulous writer. His book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is among my favorites. But why, I wonder, was a writer whose greatest achievement has been to draw an indelible and agonizing portrait of a woman slowly dying of cancer chosen for this?
A bigger sign of trouble though is that the magical world of the wild things is far from magical. Wild Things belongs to the same genre as troubled child fantasies like The Wizard of Oz and The Chronicles of Narnia. But, while those transported their young heroes to lands sprung colorfully from fertile imaginations, Wild Things drops Max in the midst of indistinguishable beasts throwing one long tantrum.
You know something’s amiss in a fantasy movie when you find yourself longing for the characters to return home, because home had been so much more interesting and evocative. Wild Things is like leaving the wonderful world of Oz behind after 15 minutes to spend the rest of the movie wallowing with the pigs in the dreary land of Kansas.
I suppose Jonze was covering his bases when he said in interviews that his movie isn’t for children, but rather it is a movie about childhood. But what a strange miscalculation to make a movie based on a beloved children’s book in such a way that it alienates children.
During my matinee screening, there was a family of four sitting in front of me. The dad kept nervously glancing at his silent kids. Finally, halfway through the movie, they laughed. Even louder though was the dad’s sigh of relief.