Do you guys plot against me?
Do you sit in darkened rooms and tent your fingers and cackle darkly that “Yessssssssss, this shall break him?”
Because with these requests, you are officially taking the piss.
Guys, I review cartoons and superhero movies. That’s what works for me. That is my comfort zone. What made you think an austere, melancholy arthouse film like Where the Wild Things Are was a good fit for me? People, this movie is fancy. To review a movie like this you need to know about… like…shots…and…sound mixing and…mise en scenes and shit.
I mean, what’s next? A wacky Unshaved Mouse review of Andy Warhol’s Empire?
Heading into this review I feel like so many screenwriters who’ve tried to adapt Maurice Sendak’s 1963 classic children’s book must’ve felt; “How do I get a movie/review out of that?!”
But, I’m proud, I’m stubbourn and I’m too damn dumb to quit so let’s do this.
Where the Wild Things Are wasn’t really part of my childhood growing up, (we were a Dr. Seuss and Narnia fam), but I’ve come to appreciate it as an adult since it entered MiniMouse’s story rotation. In less than 200 words it tells the story of Max, a young boy dressed in a wolf costume who acts so wild that his mother sends him to bed without dinner. Then his room changes into a jungle, he goes on a journey, meets some monsters, becomes their king, has a party, has a moment of reflection where he wonders what he’s even doing with his life and returns home to find his dinner waiting for him. That’s it.
But it’s not. Or maybe it is. Where the Wild Things Are is one of those books that’s just begging to be interpreted. It’s like, it’s there on your bookshelf, taunting you: “What could I mean? Oooooh, what could I mean? There’s a boy, in a wolf costume. Is he a metaphor for wild, unchecked masculinity? Look at my gorgeous art, am I not dripping in symbolism? What about the Goat Boy? He’s got to represent something, right?”
Couple this with Sendak’s weird, elegant, ever so slightly off prose and you have all the elements of a cult classic: It’s pretty, it’s weird, and no one knows what the fuck it all means. It also sold like gangbusters, which put it in the company of books like Watchmen and Cloud Atlas, books that everyone wanted to make into a movie while having absolutely no idea how. It presents a unique problem to any adaptation; there’s simultaneously too much and too little. Disney worked on an animated adaptation for a while back in the eighties before finally throwing their hands in the air. But it was Maurice Sendak himself who finally decided that the best person to bring his story to the big screen was Spike Jonze, director of such modern classics as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and the single greatest thing ever:
Am I wrong?
Production began in 2006 and finished three years later, massively over-budget and dogged by rumours that its own studio hated it. How did it turn out? Well, we’re going to find out. On this blog. Where I review it. Because somebody thought that was a good idea.
So the movie begins the same way the book does, with Max dressed up in a wolf costume and chasing the family dog around the house with a fork. Max is played by Max Records, the third largest chain of music and music memorabilia stores on the East Coast through much of the eighties and nineties before it was finally purchased by…
Holy shit. No. That’s actually a person name. Max Records. Jesus. It’s not even a stage name, either, that’s on the kid’s birth certificate. Anyway, Max is is playing in the snow in his front garden and tries to get his older sister, Clare, to come out and see his kickass igloo but she ignores him. Some of Clare’s older friends arrive and Max waits until they come out of the house and starts pelting them with snowballs. At first everything’s fine, the older kids fire back with snowballs of their own and everyone’s having a good time. But then Max races back to the igloo to take shelter and one of the older kids jumps on it, causing it to cave in on him and bury him in snow.
Max climbs out, trembling, crying and shaken. And the other kids leave him because they don’t know what to say. Because they’re kids.
It’s a wonderful scene, raw and very real. Being a kid often feels like a long procession of hurting other people without meaning to, and getting hurt without knowing why. Clare and her friends leave him there and Max deals with this in a mature and constructive manner…nah, just kidding, he trashes Clare’s room in revenge.
He then curls up in bed under the blankets and the camera pans over his toys, paying special attention to some Lego figurines.
His mother (Catherine Kenner) comes home and listens sympathetically to the Tragedy of the Igloo (Being a Ballad on the Lamentable Treachery of Clare) and afterwards helps him clean up the mess he made in Clare’s room.
The next day Max is in school and learns that someday the sun is going to explode and take the earth with it. I actually distinctly remember day I learned that and the intense, gnawing existential dread it gave me. It didn’t help that the book I read it in had a typo and said that the sun would explode in five million years and not five billion. Which…I realise doesn’t really make a difference to me but still, five billion just feels much more comfortably in the future. But the teacher tells them not to worry because all humans will almost certainly be dead by then thanks to war, global warming, tsunamis and disease. And the teacher seems…disturbingly happy about this. Shit, if I was Marvel I’d ditch Josh Brolin and get this guy to play Thanos.
So Max’s sense of stability is already crumbling like the earth getting hit by the intense gravitational waves of the sun exploding into a red giant. And things get even worse when his mother brings her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) home for dinner. Max dresses up in his wolf costume and starts acting out, standing on the table and yelling “FEED ME WOMAN!” and we now know this movie isn’t set in Ireland because if Max’s mother was Irish he’d have a perfect vantage point to witness the death of the sun after she knocked him into orbit.
She wrestles Max down off the table and he bites her shoulder and she should really rub some garlic on that or she’ll turn into a boy in a wolf costume come next full moon. His mother yells at him to go to his room and even the boyfriend is really angry. But, then again, what does that prove?
Max runs out into the night and finds himself in a strange, deserted forest. Wandering through the forest he finds a boat on the shore and sails off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to a mysterious island. He sees lights in the distance and heads towards it until he finds a village of strange round huts and stranger round creatures.
So these are the wild things. Sendak originally based them on impressions of his Polish relatives who visited his home when he was a child. In his memory they were huge, often grotesque looming faces with “crazy eyes and bloodstained teeth”. Jonze was adamant that the creatures couldn’t be CGI and actually had to have a real, physical presence, so he contracted the work to the Jim Henson Creature Shop, your one stop shop for all your creature needs. The Jim Henson Company built incredibly complex head rigs for the creatures that could display a vast array of expressions and emotions. They looked amazing. And then the time came for actors to actually try walking around in the things.
So all of the hi-tech equipment had to be stripped out of the heads and instead the facial expressions were achieved with CGI. And the results are stunning. Absolutely incredible. It just goes to show that CGI and practical effects aren’t inherently superior or inferior to each other, it’s all about using the right tool for the right job.
Okay, so, Wild Thing roll call!
When he finds them, Carol, their leader is throwing a tantrum and smashing the houses of the other Wild Things. Max offers to help, and Carol takes an instant to him. The other creatures aren’t so sure however, and Judith decides that they should eat him. But Max yells “BE STILL!” at tames them with the magic trick of bullshitting them. He tells them that he has magic powers and that he once conquered some Vikings who made him their king (after he made their heads explode for trying to eat him). Carol asks him if he has the power to keep away loneliness and he tells them that he has a loneliness shield that keeps loneliness away (I have one too, I call it “gin”). The Wild Things then make him their king on the spot and Carol gives him a crown and sceptre which just happens to be nestled amongst a pile of human bones okay what the hell?
This is a children’s movie, right?
Anyway, the reign of Max I begins and his first order of business is to call a wild rumpus, which basically involves him and the Wild Things running through the woods and howling like lunatics until they all collapse exhausted into a big, sleepy pile. Honestly, that’s an executive agenda I can get behind.
Now, this review is going to be a little on the short side. Scratch that, a lot on the short side. It’s going to be completely on one side, and that side is not long. And the reason for that is not just that I’m unusually sleep deprived this week but because I recap plots and dammit there just ain’t that much plot in this thing. Stuff happens, but it’s not really what you’d call a plot. It’s just…stuff happening. So let’s just big picture this, what is actually going on? In a nutshell, Max has become his own mother. Max has been put in charge of the Wild Things, emotionally troubled, often irrational monsters unable to look after themselves or understand why they feel the way they do and act the way they act. And each one represents an aspect of Max’s personality. Bull is his loneliness, Judith his selfishness, Alexander his depression, Ira his compassion, Douglas his maturity and Carol…we’ll get back to Carol. And no matter how hard he tries to look after them and keep them happy, nothing works. Every game ends in an accident, every conversation ends with a fight. Maybe Judith is right when she says “Happiness doesn’t always make you happy.” Max can’t keep the Wild Things from hurting each other without meaning to, or getting hurt without knowing why.
Carol soon becomes Max’s favorite (something that does not go unnoticed by the others, especially Judith) and the two plan a massive fort where all the Wild Things can live together and be happy. But not all the Wild Things want that, specifically KW (Lauren Ambrose), the seventh Wild Thing who I haven’t mentioned yet. KW is (I think), how Max views his sister: the cooler, older girl who you want to hang out with. KW used to be part of the group but she’s started drifting away from them, forming new friendships with a pair of owls called Bob and Terry. She obviously cares about the other Wild Things very much, but at the same time, she wants her own life. But Carol loves and needs KW, and the more distant she becomes, the more angry and frightened he acts.
Things come to a head when Max organizes a dirt clod fight between the Wild Things and Alexander is hurt. Carol and KW have a huge fight and she leaves again. Max finds Alexander nursing his wound and apologises for getting him hurt and confesses that he’s not really a king. Alexander replies “I knew it. But whatever you do, don’t let Carol know.” And then the soundtrack drops a scary cord and I sat because, holy shit, only eighty minutes into the movie, actual plot is happening.
Okay, probably should put my cards on the table. Do I like this movie? I don’t know. (I never said they were particularly exciting cards). The New York Times has a great article on the making of this film which details the fights Spike Jonze had to go through with the movie execs to get this thing released. And here’s the thing, I kinda see where the execs were coming from. This movie is possibly the best example I can think of a great film made from a weak script. Or, certainly not what you’d consider a traditionally strong script. It’s aimless, and flabby and the central conflict only rears its head way, way too late and is resolved way, way too quickly. There is a treasure trove of good performances, gorgeous cinematography and a distinctive score in this movie, but it asks you to out up with a lot. If you hate this movie, I get that. If you love this movie, I definitely get that too. If you are utterly baffled by how you are supposed to feel about it, climb up here, there is room on my horse for two.
That night, in the fort, Carol throws a tantrum over KW leaving and starts to trash the place. He turns on Max, berating him for not being a good king and keeping the group together. Douglas tells Carol that Max isn’t a king, he’s just “A boy, pretending to be a wolf, pretending to be a king. There’s no such thing as a king” And Carol goes berserk and roars at Max “I’LL EAT YOU UP” and chases him into the woods.
So, what is Carol?
Carol is Max’s rage at his mother for (as he sees it) failing to keep their family together.
Sooner or later, everyone faces the realization that their parents aren’t gods or kings, but flawed, powerless human beings, just as scared and clueless as anyone else. It’s an inevitable part of growing up, like your first breakup or the first time someone close to you dies. Or learning that your favorite YouTuber has become a shit-gargling white supremacist.
Max runs into the forest and is found by KW who hides him by swallowing him like a condom full of Columbian marching powder. Carol arrives demanding to know where Max is but KW tells him to get lost. Carol finally realises how crazy he’s been acting and leaves, ashamed. From the depths of her stomach, Max tells KW that Carol doesn’t mean to be the way he is, and that he’s just scared. At least I think that’s what he says. My version of the movie doesn’t have subtitles which is kind of a problem considering this is one of those movies where everyone seems to be trying to get on the Olympic mumbling team. KW answers “Well he only makes it harder. And it’s hard enough already.” So, yeah. Stop being a dick to your Mom, Max.
The next day, Max apologises to Carol and says that he’s not a king. Carol asks what he is and Max replies “I’m Max.”
“That’s not very much, is it?” Carol answers.
Max says goodbye to the rest of the Wild Things and sails back through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year until he arrives home where his mother, and his dinner, is waiting for him.
And it’s still hot.
Imagine for a moment that you died. You wake up in the afterlife, heaven, purgatory, Valhalla, the happy hunting ground, wherever. You’re led past a queue of souls all waiting for their turn to be born. One of them calls out “Hey! Is it worth it?”.
Whatever answer you would give in that situation is your answer to the question of whether you should see this movie. I’m not sure if I mean that as a compliment or not, but there you go. This movie is like life. It’s long, aimless, meandering, often thoroughly miserable and you frequently find yourself wondering what the point of it all is. Beautiful though. Really beautiful. Takes your breath away. Sweet too, in places. In the end, Max’s story doesn’t really amount to much. But he loves, and is loved in return. Maybe that’s enough.
Beautifully shot, and the puppeteering and digital effects work used to bring the Wild Things to life is damn near flawless.
Max Records gives a wonderful performance, breathing life and nuance into a character who’s more than a little flat on the page.
Nah, not Carol.
Supporting Characters: 15/20
Despite such a high powered cast, the actors are all very well chosen and you never get the Dreamworks problem of focusing on the famous voice more than the character.
Is the music any good? Yeah. Yeah? Yeah.
FINAL SCORE: 79%
NEXT UPDATE: 20 April 2017
NEXT TIME: There are no strings on me…