Sunday, October 18, 2009

Let the Dysfunctional Rumpus Start

Let's cut to the chase: I saw Where the Wild Things Are last night. I hated it.

Few movies this year have been as highly anticipated as this Spike Jonze-directed adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book. Few movies have been as well-reviewed, either. So I was really looking forward to seeing it. Based on the the advance hype, the critical response, and the pedigree of the creative team involved, I was expecting an inventive, emotionally resonant treatment of this simplest and sweetest of stories.

Inventive and emotionally resonant I got. Jonze and company have created a depressing movie whose central theme is that dysfunction trumps love every time. That's quite a leap from Sendak's tale of an imaginative boy who revels in a world of freewheeling beasts. Instead we get the story of Max, a lonely boy in a single-parent home whose frustrations and fears come to life in the titular land of "wild things." That's a clever and promising premise. The monsters in Where the Wild Things Are turn out to be a conflicted, divided "family" whose struggles not-so-coincidentally mirror Max's own. Those parallel relationships could have guided a satisfying narrative. Unfortunately, the Wild Things also turn out to be a bunch of angry, emotionally stunted, self-centered archetypes who make the audience long for a dramatic transformation that never comes.

As most of the reviewers have pointed out, this is not a "kids' movie" in any real sense. Jonze clearly wants grown-ups and more mature younger viewers to perceive the layers, metaphors, and emotional touchstones he's built into the story. The problem is, there's no depth to the perception. No one in the movie is more than the sum of his or her problems: Carol has anger and control issues, K.W. feels unfulfilled but trapped, Judith masks her insecurities in bitchiness, Alex resorts to passive-aggressive outbursts to articulate his needs. They're all very real (if cookie-cutter) character traits, but they're traits that get put on the screen in big, furry costumes and then never explored, explained, or resolved. That's certainly an accurate view of how adult problems can appear to kids, but it's not enough to sustain interest for 94 minutes of screen time.

Seeing the Wild Things bicker and dither was entertaining, but my amusement was based on anticipation of how Max's presence would interrupt and change their little community. And at first I was rewarded when they all rallied around King Max's plans to build a fortress of magical and grandiose proportions. The construction at first brings them together, then aggravates old problems. Then...they get upset and give up and Max goes home. The end.

Sorry for the spoiler there, but it's hard to further spoil a movie that ends on such a disappointing note. I wasn't looking for a neat, tidy, happily-ever-after ending - that wouldn't have been true to everything that had come before. But I was looking for some adherence to the principles of good storytelling, namely that characters should undergo change and plots should experience resolution. No one in Where the Wild Things Are ends up happy, or sadder but wiser, or with a plan to make things better after the credits roll. There's no sense that anything ever has been or ever will be different from what we saw on the screen. Again, that's a spot-on depiction of how a child sees the world. But it's bad moviemaking.

There are a lot of good things about this movie. It's beautifully filmed, the sets and set-pieces (like that fortress) are gorgeous, and Max Records as Max is a wonderful, natural child actor. The emotional setups are authentically wrenching. It's just that the complete lack of accompanying payoff left me with an empty husk of a moviegoing experience. Others may be able to thoroughly enjoy Where the Wild Things Are for what it is and what it offers. All I saw was the gaping hole where the movie's heart should have been.

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