Where the Wild Things Are

Posted on October 18, 2009


I got to see this three days before it came out in theaters, at a special screening. I was very excited. I really, really wanted to like it. Unfortunately, the movie falls incredibly short of all the hype that has been building for so many months.

At the very least, the film is visually stunning. It is indeed “beautiful,” as many have called it. The world of the wild things is a treat for the eyes, andit doesn’t look fake, either. A scene in which Max tromps across the desert is especially striking, as is a moment when petals fall all around.

Camerawork and visual effects, however (for me at least), cannot save a movie. Where the Wild Things Are is a major downer. I don’t recall the book being like this, and I don’t understand why just for the sake of being avant-garde or ‘quirky’ Spike Jonze needed to take what I remember as a charming, fun story and make it so goddamn miserable.

The beginning part of the movie is perfectly done. As many have said, it captures accurately the turmoil of childhood—one minute everything is happy, Max is having a friendly snowball fight with his older sister’s friends (and they’re paying attention to him, so cool!), and the next they jump on top of his snow fort (still without malice, I’d argue, but they just got too rough) and Max is bawling as the older boys drive away callously. All of this is great stuff.

But as soon as Max gets to the isle of the wild things, the movie goes sour, and stays it until the end. First of all, sorry to be unsentimental but when he meets the wild things and begins telling them about his “powers,” it just feels silly. All these claims Max makes about how he can control certain things (in response to one of the monsters asking, “Can you make the loneliness go away?” in one of the more morose, overwrought bits of dialogue) are just stupid. And the monsters buy it, natch, and everyone in the theatre around me was oohing and aahing, like, “Oh, so cute and beautiful and touching, oh, oh!”

Considering that Max is with the wild things for a whole six pages in Sendak’s book, and there’s no text, just wonderful illustrations of them romping around, it’s a bit much to have to watch Max play psychiatrist to the monsters’ relationship problems. Not only is the film depressing, it frequently makes no sense. I suppose, again, that’s Spike Jonze’s “genius,” but bits like an entire subplot involving K.W. (the sad female wild thing that Carol, the sad male wild thing, has a crush on) and her two friends, is really unnecessary. The friends, of whom every mention makes Carol suffer with jealousy, turn out to be two owls. K.W. speaks to them and understands them, but they can’t talk, it’s unclear if she’s pretending or not, Max can’t understand them, then she brings them to the other monsters and the question of whether all the wild things can communicate with them is answered when Carol says, hilariously but bizarrely, “I don’t apologize to owls.” Weird enough for you? And no, don’t mention Being John Malkovich or Adaptation to me—those are “weird” movies that make sense, and their weirdness serves a function.

Finally, after such a strange journey of constantly fluctuating emotions and mood shifts, the film could at least give us a happy ending. I suppose that would be too pedestrian, though, so instead there is zero resolution, zero sign of the monsters forgiving Max or feeling as though his visit had any effect, positive or negative. Carol, as Max sails away, is just as miserable as he began. As are we, the audience.

Kudos to Catherine Kenner, though, and to Gandolfin and Paul Dano for standout voice acting. Good costumes, great music, beautiful cinematography, funny/random cameo from Mark Ruffalo as the ‘boyfriend’ with one line. But overall, though it’s a movie most will want to see “just to see,” Where the Wild Things Are is a big fucking drag.

Slate movie critic Dana Stevens summarized the story perfectly: “Fuzzy guys build a stick fort, sit inside it, and mope.”

Posted in: DBR Blog