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Ten Words or Less Review: Honest and touching movie about childhood, maybe not for children.

Movies for children and movies about children can be wholly different creations. Movies for children usually run the gamut from cute adventures about cats and dogs to hiding aliens in the basement. These stories are often simple, their morals straightforward, their visuals bright and their intentions limited in nature. They entertain and distract young minds and are then forgotten. Movies about kids, a rare breed, can be much more complex and unpleasant. They can be difficult and unwieldy things because the adults making them have long forgotten what it is to be a child.  Hollywood has a very thin resume when it comes to making believable movies about kids.  “Where the Wild Things Are” is a movie being touted as an experience for kids but is very much about them, and the experience of watching it for a youngster would by my estimation be a strange and possibly unsettling experience.  It’s a film rooted in the moody atmosphere of a child who has intense emotions, lashes out at others and doesn’t yet know why he does so.  So in that respect it’s about most children.  The fact that’s it’s inhabited with a group of creatures who share his tempestuous emotions only serves to make things more difficult for younger viewers, and probably older ones too.

Many people will probably attend “Where the Wild Things Are” expecting a harmless story about a pesky child running around with the monster friends of his imagination who then goes home for soup.  Such is the nature of Maurice Sendak’s original story.  It shouldn’t take long for viewers long to see that director Spike Jonze and company are unfolding a creature of a deeper nature.  The very first thing “Wild Things” shows us is protagonist Max, played by Max Records, running through his house in his wolf costume chasing his dog while he hisses and screams uncontrollably.  He’s a kid completely out of control.  This opening moment tells us a lot about who Max is.  As we see more about Max we uncover a very lonely boy who is growing out being the center of attention.  His father is absent, his older sister doesn’t want to play with him anymore, his mother loves him but has priorities besides his every waking need.  Max doesn’t know how to handle these deficiencies of attention and like so many kids; he can become an unpleasant creature easily bent out of shape.  After an intense outburst at his mother, he bites her, Max runs off and jumps in a small boat and makes off for the land of the Wild Things.  The movie wisely avoids any explanations as to why and how he gets there. There he finds the mysterious collection of the creatures who seem a lot like him.

Max’s adventure is not an average one.  Max and the Wild Things do what all kids like to do, play, rough house, build forts, an especially large fort, generally wreck havoc and test each other emotionally.  There is no real plot or mission to accomplish or fulfill.  Max builds an especially strong relationship with Carol, voiced with a great innocence by James Gandolfini.  Carol is Max’s most direct extension on an emotional level.  Carol wants things to stay the same, have his friends near an to feel important.  When these qualities are threatened, like when his best friend KW makes new friends, he can’t help but to lash out in anger, hurting whoever he wants, just like Max.  That’s likely when “Wild Things” could send more sensitive kids into a tizzy.  Though they are beautiful to look at, the fact that these are monsters is not lost on the film.  They can look scary and intimidating and it doesn’t take much imagination to see small kids being terrified at some of the more intense actions.  When Carol losses his temper and starts to chase Max, a genuine sense of danger is achieved.

The kind of genuine, childlike relationship that’s prevalent through out “Wild Things” makes it much more than average kids fare.  All of the creatures, despite their initially fearsome appearance, are misfit children themselves.  They crown Max their king because he promises to make all their loneliness go away.  That is a unique characteristic for a movie aimed at kids to acknowledge.  Childhood in this film isn’t just beauty, growth and synchronized simplicity.  Childhood here is a difficult and unpleasant thing.  It has moments of pure joy and creativity that can never be touched again after it’s gone, but there is a downside to all of it and that’s something most movies don’t like to acknowledge.  When Max leaves the island he doesn’t get a warm, tearful embrace with cheers, but a sad send off, his friend Carol timidly waving goodbye as he sails away.  It’s a powerful reminder that sometimes we have to leave behind people for hard reasons and that we won’t hoop, holler and cheer when we leave them.

The Wild Things themselves are a magnificent creation.  Amazing life-sized suits from the Jim Henson people are accentuated with CGI faces which are perfectly blended into the physical fur around them.  Instead of inhabiting a world of CGI behemoths, which in film often struggle to look and feel significant, we’re given wonderful representations of these well known beasts which look completely believable at all times.  And instead of lathering the adventure in bright lights and straight ahead cinematography, Jonze chooses a more subdued look.  This land of the Wild Things is a beautiful place, but one grim and dark around the edges.  Viewers used to the peppy visuals of your average CGI cartoon will see a more textured, haunted place.  One that they may feel apprehension at embracing, but could value greatly if they do.

“Where the Wild Things Are” survived a troubled production and a skittish studio to emerge as a unique and bold children’s movie, though I still have great reservations about young children seeing it.  Attempts to expand small children’s stories like Sendak’s usually result in a complete failure, see “The Polar Express”, so its achievement is doubly remarkable.  It works as a reflective and emotional film about childhood, one that might help remind adults who they were, and more importantly, what the little person sitting next to them might be thinking and feeling.  That is something so rarely captured on film that it should be greatly valued on the rare occasion when it actually happens.

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