Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Spike Jonze
viewed: 12/03/09 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

Just what makes a children’s movie a children’s movie exactly?

Clearly, a film that is made “for children” would be a children’s movie, right?  What about a film adapted from a favorite children’s picture book, starring a boy wearing a wolf suit, who goes and visits a fantasy land filled with giant animatronic and semi-animated monsters who become his friends?  It all sounds pretty kid-friendly.  Not that kid-friendly necessarily makes something a children’s movie.

Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are offers a particular conundrum.  What sounds like a children’s film on paper does not guarrantee a children’s film on screen.  But then again, that’s why I asked what is a children’s film, per se?

The film is not pandering, largely, to children, with the types of humor and characterizations that so often fill other children’s films.  And that is probably to its credit.  God knows there are some wretched things marketed to children.  Even in this film the preview of the new Jackie Chan film, The Spy Next Door (2010), is as stomach-churning as those things get with retread plots, stock jokes, and Billy Ray Cyrus.

Now, oddly enough, I didn’t end up seeing Where the Wild Things Are with my kids.  They had seen it already, so their feelings about it, which were not positive though not hateful, weren’t as immediately privy to me as they are usually.  But I still watch with an eye toward their vantage.  And the whole time, I kept thinking that this film would have been slow-going and even more, downright depressing.

I actually have often associated Spike Jonze with depressing fare.  His film, Being John Malkovich (1999) was conceptually humorous and had a flare of brilliance, but was also a real serious downer.  Though his 2002 film Adaptation was also a downer, I wondered if it was just working with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman that led that way.  But if one thing is pretty clear, Spike Jonze offers some seriously depressed characters and worlds and not with sufficiently enlightening happy endings to eclipse the dark downer of the bulk of the film (and not to say that this is a bad thing in itself, either.)

So, Max, the little boy in the wolf suit, fleshed out in real-life as the child of divorced parents, lonely and angry and confused, though richly creative in his fantasy life, finds himself adrift into a world of seriously depressive monsters.  The emotions are all about dysfunction and unhappiness, vaguely unclear reasons, projectable from Max’s “real life” that it’s about abandonment, loss, fears, anger.  But then the whole world of these creatures, they’re always frowning (unless they are in a wild rumpus).

It’s fucking depressing.

They all need therapy.  Max needs therapy.  Maybe they even need some Lithium.

The film is shot in a very experiential perspective, nearly visceral, whether it’s the gleam of the sun, or the wild running through the woods, or even the pile of furry beasts when they sleep.  It’s an interior world as well, though much of the film relies on the striking art design of these creatures, towering costumed performances, given a verity of their true three-dimensionality, and then cleverly and subtly animated faces, giving them a range of expressions and detail that works to further their believability.

It’s a naturalistic fantasy, but one that isn’t just a realism of growing up or the fears of childhood, but an outright depressing downer.  When the science teacher explains the inevitability of the sun’s destruction but then lingers on the many ways that it will not matter to people since they will have destroyed themselves by one of a multitude of ways long before, you get a sense of this fruitlessness of life, the impossibility of making anyone happy, as Max tries so hard to cheer his joyless kingdom of monsters.

Happiness is ephemeral at best.  Impossible perhaps.

And, frankly, more than anything, I think that is why this film is so hard to place.  Is it a children’s film?  Is it good?  Is it well-conceived?  Is it artistically interesting and engaging?  Can you have an emotional response to it?

It is a marketing person’s nightmare.

Personally, I found it depressing, which I did not care for.  But aesthetically it’s very rich, and there are aspects of this dream, this reverie of the darker hearts of childhood fantasy and growing up that resonate.  But I would say, children’s film or not, it’s going to be the odd kid that is going to be thrilled coming out of this film.  I’m not trying to discredit it really, just simply to say, it was not a fun time, and while maybe that is the soul of the film, its intent to explore, I am not judging it aesthetically when I say that it was a real bummer.

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