5 Reasons to Love Where the Wild Things Are
Recently my wife and I were privileged enough to get a night out alone, and so we made our way to the local theater to catch the newly released and much anticipated film adaption of the beloved children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. And as we entered the empty theater (only to have it remain empty… which was interesting in itself. Have you ever been the only ones in a movie theater?) we excitedly took our places midway up, and right in the center, hoping the following 101 minutes would match the hype (or at least match the epic quality of the brilliantly crafted trailers).
Then, after the final fade to black and closing credits, after depositing our trash in garbage cans (sidenote: don’t be the annoying people who leave your trash on the floor at theaters. Thanks.), and after walking through the lobby and out in to the parking lot, my wife and I did our customary, “so, what’d you think?” A strange thing happens to me when Katie and I embark on this ritual, I tend to have two different responses prepared dependent on whether I ask her first, or whether she asks me first. I think sometimes, if I’m asked first, and I really liked the movie but can’t be sure whether or not my wife did also, I may answer with a reserved sense of appreciation. But if I’m certain she liked the film as I did, then I enthusiastically begin my review. Naturally, if I get to ask her the question first, it gives me the advantage in going second.
This time around, Katie asked me first. And this was one of those times that I was uncertain as to how she felt about it. So, I kinda responded with a 75%, “I really liked it… alot.” To which she replied, “I absolutely loved it!” Instantly provoking me, “Yes! Me too! It was amazing!” (okay, call me strange… I’m just being honest here)
We talked all the way home about how we loved Where the Wild Things Are, and I’d like to share just 5 reasons why I/we loved it, and ultimately why I think you should too.
(1) The Lush Visuals
I’m a sucker for eye-candy. So much so, that I found myself in the small minority (as opposed to the “large” majority?) of people who “liked” last years “Speed Racer.” The way things look have a large impact on my opinion of most films. The grandiose, massively impressive visuals (Lord of the Rings, Slumdog Millionaire, Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Gladiator). The brilliantly shot, masterful perspective visuals (There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Gangs of New York, Everything is Illuminated). The CGI masterpieces that defy reality (Transformers, The Dark Knight, 300, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Pan’s Labyrinth). And the artsy, stunningly original and creative visuals (The Matrix, Big Fish, Moulin Rouge, and this, Where the Wild Things Are). As you watch this movie, you’re drawn in to an alternative world (wonderfully adapted from Maurice Sendak’s illustrations) that at once mystifies and terrifies you. You both want to be there, and hope to never arrive. I was in awe of writer/director Spike Jonze’s eye for the unique, the original, the “only a crazy artist-type would go there.”
(2) The Max
Sometimes you have to watch a movie just for the performance of an actor (Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, Sean Penn in pretty much anything). I would argue that it would be worth watching Where the Wild Things Are simply to enjoy (then) 10 year old Max Records (yes, his real name is “Max,” too). Young Max has that beautiful ability to capture an entire lifetime of emotion in a simple expression, and he’s only 10. As I watched him, I couldn’t help but see and feel everything he was seeing and feeling. He makes you feel happy, sad, enthralled, depressed, and ultimately, hopeful. You find in him the tension between living how you WANT to live, and living how you OUGHT to live. You feel the frustration of not knowing how to articulate and express your deepest pains. You get caught up in the freedom of throwing dirt clods because nothing else feels right. You empathize with the longing to be loved and needed. And he’s only 10.
(3) The Wild Things
Two reasons to love the Wild Thing creatures: how they look and who they are.
In a world of Transformers, Terminators, and King Kong, one would expect these giant Wild Things to have been created solely through CGI. However, director Spike Jonze chose the road less travelled, and it made all the difference. Giant, human operated puppets occupy Max’s alternative world, and they’re strikingly wonderful. The only CGI is their faces (the original robotic puppet heads turned out to be too heavy for the actors to maneuver), but you can hardly tell. But you CAN tell, however, that the Wild Things are physical, tangible, rideable, squishable and real. They’re crazy fun to watch.
But even better than how they look is the actual characters themselves. Each Wild Thing seems to parallel some part of Max and/or his family, helping Max to see and learn things about himself and others that he wasn’t learning on his own, in his own world. I loved how each Wild Thing was specific enough to Max and his story, and yet broad enough that the viewers could easily relate too. For instance, Carol (sort of the lead Thing) just sorta wants everyone to stay together and get along, and he gets hurt when his best (girl) friend goes away to play with her “new” friends Bob and Terry. Carol and his friends spent hours together building a miniscule model community, until everyone lost interest and left him to finish alone. He doesn’t seem to have a censor button, and when he gets angry he shows it, even if it means destroying their houses. Max finds himself in Carol, angry that his mom is dating some other guy, and his sister prefers to play with her other friends… his family, too, is coming undone from his perspective. Alexander, another Thing, is the token “nobody ever listens to me” of the group. The frankness and hesitancy to trust of Judith. The constant people-pleasing Douglas. And the list goes on… They’re each such wonderfully written personifications of real life qualities and character traits. I dare you to not go, “oh yeah, that’s me” at least several times throughout the film.
(4) The Story
Okay, to be fair, this 100 minute film is adapted from a 10 sentence, 338 word book. So there’s gonna have to be some filling-in-of-the-holes, and creating story lines ex-nihilo. While you may argue that you don’t “like” the story that Spike Jonze wrote, I don’t think it’s worth arguing that he didn’t stay “true” to the book. He may not have stayed true to what YOU got out of the book as a child, but that’s not the same thing.
I, for one, am a big fan of what he came up with. The story gives you just enough to follow along, to root for Max, to understand some of the dynamics of the Things, and to know what to hope for, but also leaves it open for so much interpretation. I don’t always like to be spoon fed the story, “here’s what I’m going to tell you, here’s how you should feel about it, and this is what it all means.” There’s a place for that type of story telling, to be sure, but in a film like this I much prefer the fodder for further thinking and contemplation. And the story, the characters, the dialogue, the one-liners, they all played together so well. In the end I found myself thinking, “who wouldn’t want to spend some time in a crazy world hanging out with unwieldily personifications of our own selves and those around us, so that we can ultimately learn more about who we are and who we want to be?” Okay, so maybe that terrifies us and and we wouldn’t want that… so the next best thing is we watch someone else do it, and find that we can grow and learn through THEIR experience.
In the end I walked away full of hope that life as it is now does not have to be life as it will always be. I’m reminded of the “now-and-not-yet” tension of the Kingdom of God. That peace and beauty and love are possible here and now, but are partnered with hate and destruction and war. One day the world will be put to rights, and that is our hope. This story invites you in to that tension, and encourages you that things can get better. We can grow, and heal, and learn even in spite of our fears and insecurities and uncertainties.
(5) The Intangibles
Lastly, it’s the little things in this film that kept making me smile. The music was beautifully crafted and matched perfectly with the visuals. The set pieces and locations were both this-and-other-worldly, allowing you to suspend just enough belief to be in both places at once. The originality of the story telling. The camera angles and perspective. The one-liners:
- “Now you are king and you will be a truly great king.” -Carol
- “I don’t won’t you to go, I’ll eat you up I love you so.” -KW
- “If I was stranded on a desert island and could only take one thing, it’d be Douglas. We can share him if you want.” – Carol
- “Happiness isn’t always the best way to be happy.” -Judith
- Max: Did you make this?
Carol: Yeah, yeah.
Max: It’s very good.
Carol: We were gonna make a whole world like this. Now, everyone used to come here, but you know… you know what it feels like when all your teeth are falling out really slowly and you don’t realize and then you notice that, well, they’re really far apart. And then one day… you don’t have any teeth anymore.
Carol: Well it was like that.
I could go on, but I’ll sum it up by saying that this movie if full of little moments and intangibles that contribute to a fantastic viewing/hearing/feeling experience.
Where the Wild Things Are seems to be one of the movies that people either love, or hate. I haven’t come across, or read about, many people who just think it’s “allright.” So judge for yourself whether this makes your top film list for 2009, I know for me it has, and I HOPE for you it will too.
Make no mistake, this is not really a “kids movie.” It’s a movie about a kid and some Wild Things… for adults… because it’s really about the kid and the wild things inside all of us. As we watch young Max grow up, we ourselves grow just a little.
If you’ve already seen it, what did you think?
If you haven’t seen it, what have you heard so far? Do you plan to see it?
As always, I welcome your thoughts and contributions to the conversation.