Off the shelf

A smart adult kid movie shows us lessons beyond the detached hipsterisms of its filmmakers



Naysayers are already complaining that Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are isn't a kid's movie (who said it was?) but — god forbid — a big-budget art-house flick. Such snide comments as, "How did he get this thing funded?" betray how a Consumer Reports-style of writing has infected contemporary film journalism. You'd think such critics pulled double duty at The Wall Street Journal the way they fret over a movie's bottom line. When did box-office earnings become filmgoer concerns? Other than as a barometer for a film's multiplex staying power, do we really care how much Warner Bros. grossed this week? Weekly receipts are dutifully reported in newspapers and on websites as if to tell us anything about the quality of a film. It makes as much sense as sports fans keeping tabs on NFL revenues to determine which teams to root for. Yes, filmmaking is an industry. But film viewing is not.

So, why all the detractors? Because Wild Things thwarts expectations. Warner Bros., understandably worried about its investment, has sold the film as a joyful ode to adolescence rather than a tour of childhood angst and entitlement. The disconnect won't sit well with audiences expecting Shrek or Willy Wonka but getting a monster-filled version of The 400 Blows.

Still, Wild Things is the kind of film critics should be celebrating, even if they think it's a failure. Jonze has crafted a work of such obvious intelligence, passion and love, that it pays respect to an audience's time and money, as well as Sendak's vision. It doesn't mean most people will love or even like it, and many will scratch their head in disappointment or boredom. But it does show a director personally and artistically committed to challenging both himself and his audience.

Yes, the narrative is shapeless and unconventional, but Max's (Max Records) journey is less a tale for children and more a tale about children; or rather, the primal emotions inside them. Jonze and his co-writer, Dave Eggers, have filled Wild Things with profound tenderness and respect, turning 10 short sentences and approximately 300 words into a rough-hewn dreamscape of loneliness, anger and insecurity. It's a haunting, sometimes too-real rendering of how imagination can liberate and frighten, echoing the tempestuous mix of emotions that churn inside a 9-year-old's psyche.

The wild things inhabit a place where Max goes when there's no other outlet for what he's feeling. It's filled with sinister forests and volatile oceans, where a teacher's comment that the sun will eventually die translates into a vast, foreboding desert. And the monsters who live, fight and love there are hyper-real projections of Max's internal state. Their behaviors reference events from real life — a tantrum at home becomes a woodland freakout, an unjust snowball fight is vindicated in a triumphant dirt-clod battle — but only glancingly. They are all part of an unruly swirl of innocence, imagination and selfishness, mirroring Max's gradual awareness of his own individuality, and the individuality of others. Forget spoon-fed adventures and "gosh, aren't they cute" sentiments; Max's island is far from those clichés. 

Jonze and Eggers rely on their audience to dig deeper for meaning, to mine the film's rich psychological terrain for insight — the way Max curls around his mother's feet like an animal, the destruction he wreaks on his sister's room after she betrays him. Wild Things is a puzzle of yearning and whimsy, fueled by Max's desperate struggle to find intimacy. 

And it doesn't always work. No matter how much Jonze tries to source his childhood experiences, he's still a thirtysomething hipster given to detached irony — maybe why the film's soundtrack is filled with gratingly hip Pitchfork-approved music. Luckily, the wild things (voiced by Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano and Forest Whitaker) make up for it with their ferocious loquaciousness. 

Not only do the monsters wear their anxiety, pettiness and longing on their fur-lined sleeves, they also represent an ever-present threat to Max's safety. And as the young boy gradually discovers, being "king" means much more than telling the wild things what to do, it means actually taking responsibility for them. In particular, Max's explosive relationship with the needy-yet-fearsome Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) makes clear that there's a very thin line between unwanted solitude and infantile rebellion.

Lyrical, beautifully shot and filled with poetic flights of fancy, Where the Wild Things Are starts with a Cassavetes-like honesty before exploding into a fantastical exploration of how children desperately and capriciously try to define their world. It's a mature, melancholic approach to Sendak's 1963 work that may not add to Warner Bros.' riches but it certainly did to mine.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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