Yesterday a reporter from CNN emailed me asking if I'd comment on the new Where the Wild Things Are movie; she'd seen the video I created of my son reacting to the trailer (and cut with the actual trailer for Spike Jonze's blog We Love You So). She wanted to know if we'd seen the movie and whether we thought it was too scary for the kids. She hadn't seen the film and I could tell she already had the template for her story ("Wild Thing movie too scary for little kids/more for adults") and I think she was taken aback when I told her it wasn't nearly scary enough, or, rather, that it was scary in completely unexpected ways. Here's her article, complete with things I sort of said in ways I don't remember saying them and a million comments calling me an idiot for bringing a 20-month-old to a movie theater (for the record, internet assholes, we knew he'd only be into parts of it, that's why my wife came with us to the empty 10:30 a.m. matinee: she knew when he got sick of it she could take him over to H&M where he could learn about women's dressing rooms while she tried on clothes made by kids in other countries who have more to worry about than whether CGI muppets are too scary). I should never have talked to the media. Everything is a controversy with these people.
I'm not complaining that the film isn't faithful to the plot. I knew many changes would have to be made to get to ninety minutes, and like many people I was confident that Spike Jonze was the best person to make those necessary changes. My chief complaint is that the script corrupts and distorts the fundamental spirit of the book.
The wild things aren't nearly wild enough. They are scary, sure, but only because they act like bitter, angry, divorcing parents. I was particularly disturbed when my daughter turned to me and said, "Why are all the girls in this movie so mean?" (I've read a lot of reactions to the film, but I haven't seen any talk about how the female characters are all cruel, nasty harpies). My guess is that the wild things aren't that wild because some studio exec (upon hearing early reports that the film was scaring test audiences) told Jonze to tone down the wildness, which resulted in the bewildering experience of watching two minutes of rumpus and an hour plus of "Muppet therapy." Halfway through the film I dozed off and woke up thinking they were all in Dr. Melfi's office. But even worse than not being very wild, the wild things are a total buzzkill. They are joyless. As a friend of ours said, "Forget the kids, I wouldn't take a depressed adult to it."
The CNN reporter didn't include any of the positive things I had to say about the movie, like how it was beautifully filmed and well-acted. If she'd asked me what I thought of it as a piece of art or a film for aging hipsters who remember Sendak's book fondly, I would have offered a different opinion. But she asked me as a father who still reads it every day and has kids who currently love it. And I told her the truth: whoever the filmmakers made this film for, it wasn't for kids who still read the book. And in all fairness, they don't have to make an adaptation for the almost-2-year olds and almost-5-year olds who love the book. I mean, little kids have no sense of a linear narrative or popcorn money, right? So instead of a film for kids, they made a VERY SERIOUS equivalent of all the other nostalgia exercises Hollywood cranks out (like Dukes of Hazard and Starsky and Hutch). The book is a classic because it speaks to people and children of all ages. Ultimately, this film interpretation of that classic book has limited appeal. A film supposedly about the power of a child's imagination failed to capture my children's imagination. And I think that's a shame.
On the way home from the theater, my wife pointed out that Jonze and Eggers' adaptation was no My Neighbor Totoro, though the two films deal with similar themes. Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece takes place in late 1930s Japan with a father taking care of his two girls while his wife suffers from an undefined illness in a hospital near where they have moved into a "haunted house" to be closer to her. The Totoro girls deal with this through brief interactions with magical creatures who only reveal themselves to the kids; strangely Jonze and Eggers' Wild Things relies on a hyper-realist portrayal of the imagination as a psychological battleground, forgoing any "magic tricks," even the "walls becoming the world all around." Instead Max runs away into an actual forest and finds an actual boat (it is unclear where movie Max physically spends most of this reverie, although clearly it's not his bedroom). I expected more surreal moments---more Spike Jonze moments. The sets, effects and cinematography are beautiful, this world seems to lack any sense of wonder, even for Max. It's like he's figured it all out before he even gets there. In Totoro, the imaginative world is a place full of wonder and excitement and an escape from a reality filled with the anxieties of sisters who fear their mother is dying. In the Wild Things film, the imaginative world is fraught with tension and the same fears and anxieties that Max faces in reality. It's like Eggers is channeling Judith Vigna rather than Maurice Sendak.
In the book, six-year-old Max subdues the terrible wild things, becomes all powerful, and enjoys the sort of control he lacks in his reality, until, that is, he falls into the same role as those responsible for him: enforcer of rules; authority figure; wild thing tamer. He realizes he must give up being king. He must go home where someone "loves him best of all." In the book, Max learns that his mother's authority is love: her punishment and taming of his wild ways is a form of love. He is able to say goodbye to his inner wild things and return to a room where a bowl of hot soup is waiting for him.
In the film, ten-year-old Max interrupts an existing society of wild things who do not gnash any teeth or show any terrible claws, but instead bicker like the adults in an episode of Everyone Loves Raymond. He subdues them with the sort of lies that a ten-year-old would tell, claiming to be a Viking king ("king" we later learn is a sacrificial role that already exists within their society), and though he is declared king it is clear that his throne is tenuous and his power meaningless. This is not a fun place to be king. He is resented instead of feared. Muppet Machiavellis pit each other against him. After an all-too brief (and wonderful) rumpus, the bickering continues for another hour, and Max's powerlessness only becomes more apparent to the wild things, who eventually realize there is no such thing as a king: no authority, no love, no hope. Only a setting sun that will eventually run out of fuel.
When K.W. finally whispers, "We'll eat you up we love you so," it's clear that's as much of a lie as all Max's Viking talk. They don't love him nor will they eat him. There is no supper in the land of the wild things, just as there is no love, not between Max and the wild things, Carol and K.W., or even Judith and Ira. He sails away, leaving them in this existential nightmare on the beach, returning to a mother whose split from his father has harmed him in a way he can't escape or even work through in his imagination. Children suffer, too, we see, even if it's totally a cliched, bourgeois species of suffering. And imagination is no place to escape it.
And this is how the film created by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers with Maurice Sendak's stamp of approval ends. It is an interesting film, but as I said to CNN, it isn't for kids. I think it succeeds on some levels, but fails at an important one: it fails as myth. The book appeals to children because it has the qualities of any good myth. The moral lessons carry the weight they do because of the story and its imagery; it's an adventure they can relate to before they even realize why. It becomes embedded in them, which is partly why the film has generated so much buzz among adults. But the film wears its psychological heart on its sleeve, and as adults we "get it," but the movie is so boring and confusing to the age group that the original story was intended for, its mythic power is lost.
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To those who would argue that no film can appeal to toddlers and preschoolers and graders (and their parents) whil emaintaining artistic integrity, I return to My Neighbor Totoro, a quiet, beloved little film where the "monsters" don't even talk---they sit silent, grunt, and sometimes roar, and yet more beauty and wonder is conveyed in the few tender moments they appear on screen than in an hour of Dave Eggers' CGI-enhanced dialogue. There are no fart jokes or pop culture references that wink at the parents. There is no violence. It is slow and contemplative, and beautiful. My daughter will watch it in Japanese, for chrissakes.
This is an example of a film that does manage to capture the complexity of childhood while remaining captivating to adults, kids, and even toddlers. It's the sort of film Wild Things should have aspired to. The children in this film are arguably going through an experience far more terrifying than Max, and yet they are still portrayed as actual children dealing with the world as children do. Even with dark clouds overhead, they manage to find joy and wonder in it. Imagination in Miyazaki's film helps his characters cope; Max's fantasy only teaches him there is nowhere he can go to escape suffering and pain. Watching Totoro is inspiring; Wild Things is heartbreaking.
The psychological conflict manufactured to give the Wild Things film more depth prevents this Max from ever realizing the most important lesson of the book: that punishment is sometimes necessary, and that the taming of wild ways can be an act of love. Any joy or wonder it might have absorbed from Sendak's book is immediately overshadowed by the terrifying, crippling worldview that we are haunted by our reality even in the worlds we build to escape it, and we return to reality only because we can find no solace in our imagination (not because we have someplace where someone loves us best of all). In Jonze and Eggers' film, there is no wilderness left even for a child's imagination: just a bunch of whiny muppets sitting around with blankets and tissues on their laps, drinking tea and talking about their feelings.
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