Max is a troubled kid. He’s in a difficult place in his life — he’s not quite a child anymore, but he’s not yet a teenager, either. His older sister is distant and ignores him, and when he tries to engage her friends in a snowball fight, it ends as you’d expect a snowball fight between a group of teenagers and an adolescent to end: In tears. Max’s father is also not around, and he still depends on his mother, not just to take care, but to acknowledge and validate him. But Mom (Catherine Keener) has concerns of her own — she’s overwhelmed. She’s having a hard time at work, and she’s trying to date, which shifts her attention away from Max, who is already lonely, stuck inside his own head, and experiencing feelings of abandonment. Add to that: his grade-school science teacher has warned him that, someday, the sun will burn out, and if that doesn’t destroy the Earth first, war, famine, global warming, or some other calamity might.
So, Max is confused. He feels neglected. Out of sorts. Upset, and maybe a little angry. When his mother shows up with a date (Mark Ruffalo), a date that diverts her attention away from him, Max acts out. He jumps on a table. He demands dinner. He bites his mother. And when she responds with anger, Max runs away from home. He jumps into a sailboat. He sails over a year, in and out of weeks, and through a day to where the Wild Things are.
The Wild Things are fucking terrifying. They’re not just old-style, lo-fi movie creatures, the likes you’ve seen in The Neverending Story or Princess Bride; these Wild Things are manifestations of Max’s own psyche. Not the Max of the Maurice Sendak book, who is learning to cope with preschool maturity — that’s it’s not OK to throw things or resort to tantrums to get your way. This is a far more burdened Max. The Wild Things in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are represent Max’s alienation, his insecurity, his feeling of abandonment, and his anger. They’re destructive — not in the little boy temper tantrum sort of way, but in the way that causes them to throw rocks at owls, obliterate homes, and step on each other’s faces out of spite.
Granted, when these Wild Things are not surly or ragey, they do have a sense of playfulness. They like to jump upon each other and fall asleep in a pile; they like to build forts; and they like to have dirt-clump fights, but even those turn ugly. Feelings are hurt; the feelings of alienation are deepened; and their dysfunction further reveals itself.
It’s Max’s duty, as King of Where the Wild Things are, to solve their problems, mend their emotional wounds, and bring them together as one big happy family. So, in a way, Max has to grapple with his own emotions, his own deep-seated issues, and take on a level of responsibility he’s not really mature enough to cope with yet. At least not without his mother’s guidance, and the comfort she brings.
Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is a dark, melancholic film. At times playful, at other times profound, it’s also often aimless and slow, building toward an achy and complicated emotional wallop far heavier than anything Maurice Sendak ever envisioned in his ten-sentence storybook. Nevertheless, it’s a magnificent, unconventional art film, captivating, beautifully shot, and layered with emotional bruises, a dark fairytale that’s likely to appeal to fans of Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers (who co-write the script) alike.
But it’s a lousy children’s film. And anybody that tells you that Spike Jonze’s film is faithful to the essence of Maurice Sendak’s storybook has a far different interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are than either my two-year-old son or I do. If you’re expecting 90 minutes of effervescent joy, or a window into your own childhood, forget about it. There’s a few glimpses into the childlike reverie, into that sense of wonder that you might remember as a child, free from responsibility and living in your own world of imagination, running through a forest or howling at the sky. But they are few and far between, bookended by preadolescent traumas and the heavy emotional burdens of growing up.
Indeed, as much I want to love and appreciate Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are for what it is — a profound, heart-achy and magically wistful indie flick — it’s not what I was hoping for. It won’t provide an emotional bridge between parent and child. Children will feel restless, bored, and, at times, terrified (several parents left with their children during the screening I attended, and several more begged to go home, against their own parents’ wishes). It’s too dark, and those fleeting moments of joy and exhilaration are surrounded by too much sadness and confusion. The Wild Things are menacing and bi-polar — when they threaten to eat Max, there’s a legitimate fear — exacerbated by their razor sharp teeth — that they actually might.
Still, Where the Wild Things Are is a beautiful and smart film — too smart (and at times, a little too smug) for it’s own good, perhaps. It’s a risky one, too, and given the $100 million price tag and the fleeing children in attendance, it’s one that’s not likely to pay off for Warner Brothers. Still, as a movie critic, I adored the movie, even if it’s not anything like what the trailers portended. But as a parent, I’m disappointed. Disappointed that Where the Wild Things Are the movie is not something I’ll be able to share with my own child until he’s old enough to understand the themes coursing through it. Unfortunately, by then, he won’t be a child anymore, and he’ll have already made the miraculous journey of the mind that the film represents.