Saturday, May 22

Where the Wild Things were

This review will contain spoilers!

I think it was Tesh who, in a thread where I mentioned my excitement about this reimagination of one of my earliest happy memories, mentioned that he didn't altogether enjoy seeing the movie "Where the Wild Things Are". I've had the movie DVD in house for a few weeks now and finally got around to seeing it last Thursday. I have to say my own experiences of the movie are also ambivalent. I can't quite determine why I can't wholeheartedly like- or dislike it. Probably because I can't tell if the movie's made for children or adults. It probably tries to do both but that's where the shoe starts to rub I guess.

First a note on the Wild Things, the 'monsters'. They're all very well done and their 'acting' is great as well as that of Max who's rock solid throughout the movie. As a blend of both animatronics and CGI it's some very impressive work. As can be expected of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. But that does point to something I kinda missed. It felt like there should have been a Hensonesque music/dance scene in there somewhere. Maybe that's just me showing my age but something along the lines of Sarah meeting those reddish muppets with the loosely attached extremeties in Labyrinth? It might even have mitigated my prime issue with the movie.

ACT 1: Setting the background.
Well, this first part I have absolutely no problems with. Max, his sister and his mother are introduced in a very well directed manner, all from Max's perspective. Not only is the wolf-suit instantly recognizable and gets you into things immediately, but Max's character is set down very well in a series of scenes that give a good insight into the loneliness and disconnectedness that make him the enfant terrible that he is.

The relationship with Big Sister (who gets about 90 seconds of screentime) is done very well and I really wanted to hug Max upon seeing him ready to burst into tears after being buried alive in his snow iglo by his elder sister's friends. The whole snowball fight scene between ambusher Max and Claire's friends is a very succinct method of showing how Max craves attention and will settle even for the negative type while at the same time driving home the problems with a younger kid trying to play with older kids. That Big Sis had a better relationship with Max but outgrew him is nicely portrayed in the following scenes. A lot of this is very recognizable for everyone who's had an imperfect childhood or has taken the time to interact with a lonely child and should be good vieweing for any parent with a troublesome child just to get perspective.

The relationship with Mom is set up equally well and is used to show Max's imagination at the same time. The first hints of the somehwat heavy handed symbolism start to show up here. Still, the first act is by far the most subtle, for example in the way it's obvious Max misses a father figure even though Max's dad is barely referred to in the movie at all. As you can tell I really liked the first act. Script, directing and acting comes together superbly here.

The act ends with Max running away after having bitten his Mom in a fit of anger and jealousy over his Mom's new love interest. He runs of and sails to the island where the Wild Things Are.

ACT2 Cutting loose.
The second act has Max meeting the monsters who are the Wild Things. A group of monsters living on an island, each representing a part of Max or of the people and forces around him, with a lot of Freudian and Jungian elements thrown in. There's Carol, who's an obvious representation of Max's own id or wilder side who wants everything and doesn't get why people don't always agree with them. There's Judith who's always complaining and pointing out the fallacies in any plan like either the SuperEgo or possibly Mom, as Mom's tend to fill that role while a child still "developess" that part of themselves, but Mom really never shows that side in Act 1. But I'm describing what she was probably meant to portray, not how she came across to me. More on that later.
There's also KW who's a more obvious representation of Max's Sister. Slightly more mature than Carol she's at first absent from the group and likes to spend time with other friends outside the monsters, two owls of all things. Yeah that's the kind of symbolic subtlety you can apply with a two by four. We could probably find the Ego amongst some of the other Wild Things and find other representations, like Goat Boy (Alexander) who's a clear representation of the misunderstood, shy sensitive e.t.c. All the Wild Things each have a purpose and depth to them.

Anyway, in this Act Max meets all the Wild Things and manages to get them to make him their King. What bothered me here was not so much the kind of blunt subtlety with the Owls, it's supposedly a kid's movie so a bit of obviousness is ok right but that from my perspective this would be the 'happy time' for Max. It is really, but each moment of joy in the movies is 'poisoned' by foreshadowing of things to come in some form or other or not so subtle 'it will not last' signs. The sole exlcusion to this is maybe the 'pile up' where all the Wild Things pile on top of Max in order to go sleep that way. The juxtaposition and contrast with being buried in the pile of snow from Act 1 is obviuous, but in a good way for Max as he manages to connect with KW (Big Sister) who protects him from the worst of the avalanche.

ACT 3: Everything Changes:
ACT 3 has Max organizing the Wild Things into accomplishing Carol's dreams, creating a place where only the things you want happen. It's actually in this Act that Max meets KW's Owl friends who are liked by everybody except Carol and Max who don't understand them while eveyrone else does. Max now tries to mollify Carol into accepting the owls as a price for not losing KW again. We see some growth in max that way. During Act 3 Max has an encounter with most of the Wild Things that teaches him a little something about himself, meanwhile the big dream is starting to unravel with ever increasing foreboding and inevitability.

ACT4: the house of cards comes tumbling down:
ACT 4 has everything breaking down and Max realizing he has no future here amongst the Wild Things. He incurs the jealousy of some by being to close to Carol then begins to lose that conenction when he begins to become aware that some of the things Carol wants just aren't reasonable or feasible even. He has to own up to not being as all powerfull as he claimed (in order to keep them from eating him but make him their King) and he ends up shattering Carol's dreams and desires even while he does manage to reintegrate KW with the group. In the end he sets of in his boat to return home and the Wild Things 'howl him off' including Carol.

ACT5: it was all just a dream.
Probably the Act which satisfied me the least. Max returns home and reunites with his Mom who'd naturally been worried sick and eats his dinner. It's all very sweet without becoming too cloying but I really really missed max saying 'sorry' to his mother just once. Maybe that's implied by him eating his dinner including the frozen corn he doesn't like while Mom watches over him smiling happily but maybe it was actually dinner sans corn. I missed Max saying sorry and Mom not being a wet hen to be honest. Well, if Mom remains a wet hen that's her problem. But with Max effectively abandonning the Wild Things to their lot after he failed to actually lead them the lack of that 'sorry' tells me Max didn't really gain a sense of responsibility for his actions, which is kind of the whole central premise of the book you know. And in Act 3+4 there's some building blocks for that bridge, but he never seems to actually reach the other shore there.
Maybe they were trying to be subtle about it, I'm not sure in retrospect if Max is is or isn't eating the frozen corn he refused to eat in Act1, that bit I will have to check back on the DVD. If he is eating them, he did learn his lesson, but that's maybe a bit too subtle for me.

Overall experience:
A very well directed movie which nonetheless had me feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Mostly I can't tell if this is a kid's movie or a grown ups movie. There's not a single moment of unmitigated joy that isn't spoiled to some extend by some not so subtle foreboding of doom and gloom. This is so strong it really doesn't fit well with a kid's movie. It's more appropriate for an adult movie on a serious subject. Not that a kid's loneliness isn't serious business of course. It's that jarring that spoils an otherwise great movie for me. It's not that I have problems with the concept of each success carrying within the seeds of its destruction. That's Life for you. But that's a bit to adult a concept for this type of movie. Even as a kid's movie for grown ups.
That and the no-sorry ending.

There's a couple of jewels in the dialogue:

Judith: Are you good to eat? You better be good to eat! Did you even consider you ought to be good to eat?

Max: Small is good. My powers are able to slip right through the cracks.
Judith: But what if the cracks are closed up?
Max: Then I have a re-cracker, which goes right through that.
Judith: But what if they have some sort of material that re-crackers can't get through?
Max: Then I have a double re-cracker, which can get through anything in this whole universe. And that's the end, and there's nothing more powerful after that, ever. Period.
Alexander: He has a double re-cracker.
Ira: He does sound powerful.

Carol: This is all yours. You're the owner of this world. Everything you see is yours. Oh, except that hole over there, that's Ira's. The tree's yours, but the hole is Ira's. But everything else is yours.


  1. Well I hope that's a thorough enough analysis for Tesh :-)

    Oh and yes, first Night Shift in half a year and I forgot to bring a book so there might be another wall of text later...

  2. Kinda :) And I didn't really want to read an all encompassing Lani review of a film I haven't seen yet, from a book I haven't read.

    But I should have commented something about your first night shift. Enjoy the crazy schedule again?

  3. Hmmm, well don't let it be said that I can't tell a cry for help when I hear one.
    Part one of your education should commence sometime tomorrow.

  4. *looks a bit puzzled* But anxious to see whatever you are cooking up for tomorrow.

  5. Somehow I missed this when you posted it. I know, I'm a slacker. ;)

    I actually walked out on the movie early in Act 4. The pervasive sense of impending catastrophe and the subtle menace of the Wild Things just got too annoying. They are very well crafted for the movie, to be sure, but not what I got out of the book at all for their *character* and nature.

    My wife later complained that none of the characters actually learned anything. There was zero character progression, partially evidenced by the lack of apology. If you're going to take a sweet children's book and bloat it out to feature film length to give it an Edge and a Message (a dubious proposition in the first place), this just isn't the way to do it.

    So yeah, great writeup. ;) Sorry I'm late to the party.

  6. Bleh. Looks like the web ate my first comment.

    So... nice writeup! The lack of resolution and character growth, as well as the looming menace of the Wild Things just didn't settle well with me at all. Bleh.

  7. Thanks Tesh, for saying first in two paragraphs then in two sentences what I needed a wall of text to say :-)

    I think it's a movie with a lot of great stuff. Great production. They just aimed for too high a target and failed to hit it.