(Note: in an effort to get this up I’m not going to edit so I apologize for the stream of conscious approach)
Where The Wild Things Are was my favorite book of childhood. I wasn’t exactly sure why it was at the time. It just was. I would read it constantly. Draw pictures of the Wild Things. Make up my own Wild Things. All that sort of stuff. I was one of those hyper-imaginative kids that would sort of make you worry in some ways. At first glance WTWTA doesn’t seem to be about too much. Boy gets in trouble. Sent to bed without supper. Imagines a place with fantastical where he gets to be troublesome. Eventually returns. Gets supper. Really that’s it and it would seem obvious that it’s some sort of ode or bit of comforting tale to kids when they get in trouble. But the open ended-ness of the stark narrative really has allowed the psychological subtext to be debated for years and years. Is it about troubled kids? Is it about the recess of imagination? Inclinations to violence? Is it simply an analgous tale to Maurice Sendak’s own feelings toward his homosexuality? Really, it’s gone a million ways.
And with that it’s amazing that the best analysis I’ve ever seen at getting to the heart of Where The Things Are, came in the form of the new featue film from Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers.
I could write an 100 page paper on the analysis of child psychology in this movie. This not hyperbole. It’s is a stunningly complex film. So much so that I need to see it again to really tinker and figure some stuff out. This is not exactly the simple plot of the book, but a fully fleshed out child with a fully fleshed out (and still slightly ambiguous) child mentality. And in exploring his life at home, then his life with the Wild Things, a lot of grand themes take presedence: anger, jelousy, delirium, school, sybling detachment, divorce, existentialism, and many more.
The opening section of the film deals his life at home. We get bits and pieces of everything, a sort of key to understanding the rest of the movie if you will. I’m not going to get into details, because the subtle way the movie reveals these details is such a joy; a kind of forgotten way of filmmaking. It’s all detail oriented stuff, with bits of dialogue off to the side, an image through a doorway, a few hand-made items. Max (oh yeah, that’s the main kid) absorbs his environment and things seep into him quietly. It’s remarkably well-observed stuff here. Everything is impossibly pronounced yet never feels in your face or didactic.
And then all sense of being definitely didactic goes out the window when Max acts out, and runs away to escape to his island where the wild things are. The sequence takes up close to the rest of the running time and not only is it amazing from a technical filmmaking perspective, but it’s one of the most surprinsingly complex and nuanced bit of storytelling I’ve ever seen. It pretty much abandons a technical narrative for an emotional one. Max meets the Wild Things and becomes their king. He interacts with his new friends on a very child-like and visceral manner. Really it seems to be postulating that The Wild Things are not just the inclination to be troublesome, but representations of all the kinds of emotions and fears that lead to being troublesome. It’s freaking brilliant about it too. There’s no obvious one to one. One character isn’t his mother. One isn’t his dad. One isn’t fear. One isn’t anger. They’re all of those things in different ways. His main friend Carol (Holy Shit James Gandolfini. Just amazing work here) who seems to personify a kind of strained masculinity and terror. He is both Max’s absentee father and Max’s id. They’re tumultous relationship seems to be the core of Max’s wrestling with is own anger and maturity, but if so it is only one half of the coin. The other half is realized by the two female Wild Things which represent different aspects of his mother and sister. First in Judith, the stern and dissasociated Wild Thing (another spectacular voice performance, this time from a morbidly funny Catherine O’Hara) who constantly seems to be at odds with Max; and also with the most affecting Wild Thing, KW, whose quiet resignation, humanity, warmth, and emotional weary simply radiates of her and illustrates Max longing for a reconnection with these two central women of his family. Lauren Ambrose doesn’t even get a paranthetical aside for this performance. Fully realized. Textured. Heart Breaking. Seriouly, why don’t we nominate voice actors again? It’s that good.
So is Max’s journey to where the wild things are a dream? His imagination? Both? Does it matter? Either way the movie certainly seems to be adopting dream-logic for the sequence. Believe it or not, the film that WTWTA most closely resembles is Mullholand Drive of all things. An odd choice for a “kids movie” one would think, but it’s completely analogous: a reality and a dream complimenting each other, fragmenting already stark dichotomies to tell a whole picture of a person and complete a pyschology.
I don’t blame a lot of people for not liking it. When I say “they just didn’t get it” it’s not some holier than thou statement, but more an acknowledgement that it’s really difficult to get. I certainly didn’t get all of it. At least not yet (once again, I need to see this again). I just know I haven’t seen something this ambitious in a long time. It was as formally and thematically ambitious as There Will Be Blood, and like that movie it deserves to be credited not only for it’s ambition, but for it’s amazement at how well it succeeds. I have to let it settle in as I just saw the thing last night, and I’m not really prone to over-doing something after having just seen it… but right now there are two films from this decade which take the cake for not only being flawless films, but cinematically and emotionally ambitious, while reaching some kind of deep seeded and complex truth. The first Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and other is Where The Wild Things Are. And I’m not even that crazy about Spike Jonze’s other movies.
And lastly, is the movie for kids? A lot of it will sure go over their heads. But that’s fine. In a way that’s what makes the film exactly for them. Kids are much better at sensing emotional truth than we ever give them credit for and I am positive they will see this movie and connect to Max’s life.