Cook & Walker on Where the Wild Things Are 10/20/2009
This article was originally published in The Capilano Courier, and written in partnership with Kurt Walker, who writes at Walking in the Cinema.
Where the Wild Things Are opens abruptly. Max, the young protagonist of the film, is in hot pursuit of the family dog. Donning a wolf costume, and growling angrily, he grabs the dog and shakes it around. The frame freezes and the title graces the screen. We are assured this will not be typical mainstream fare. In fact, Where the Wild Things Are is essentially art house; kid style.
Spike Jonze has a crafted a masterful work, that to my recollection, stands as the best interior examination of childhood in cinema. In most “kid movies” we are patronized, and fed regurgitated themes of equality, sharing, and friendship. But in Wild Things, the feelings and themes run much deeper. Fear, aggression, the unknown, and death are all tackled in a way relative to a child's mind.
In one early scene, Max is in school, being taught about our solar system. The teacher mentions how the sun’s life is finite, and therefore so is our presence on this Earth. Clearly, this is a big idea to drop into the mind of a child, and Max is visibly unnerved. It reminded me of when I was around his age and my Grandma told me that the world would end, perhaps sooner rather than later. I didn’t sleep that night. Jonze has an uncanny ability of authentically articulating the forgotten aspects of our childhood, the aspects both wondrous and frightening.
Max is to discover how big the world really is and how small he is in comparison. It is through the use of his own imagination that he realizes the error of using violence as a form of expression. The idea that this is something he would come to on his own, without a lesson from a teacher or a parent, is a powerful one. He begins to develop his own sense of morality and understanding of the people and places that surround him, and how his actions can impact them.
His mom actually fails to correct his problems through yelling, and ultimately she doesn’t quite understand Max. He doesn't quite understand her either, but they both are fascinated by each other. In a particularly poignant scene, Max lies on the floor, tugging at his mom's nylons, while looking up at her, and she down at him. In powerful moments such as these we fully comprehend their deeply rooted love for each other.
The brilliant children's book, of which the film is based on, acts as a perfect blueprint. Jonze expands and even improves the material, making one of the more memorable family films of recent memory. Where the Wild Things Are may not entirely work for all younger viewers, and is better for those who were once children, and have forgotten what it was like. I'd even recommend it as a must-see for parents, who may find themselves understanding their children more after seeing it. The movie reminds us that which other children's films try to make us forget: a child's mind is mysterious, complex, and wild.
Where The Wild Things Are is a film that succeeds through its modesty. It achieves in illustrating its themes through humble circumstances devoid of any pompous artistry that would only skew the necessary sincerity director Spike Jonze has employed in attempt to map out a child's mindset. Jonze's attempt is wholly successful, but Wild Things falls short in its approach to form, whilst its dramatic and storytelling content remains, for the most part, nearly perfect.
Firstly, the score by indie queen Karen O, from the Yeah Yeah Yeah's, is an attempt to recreate the nostalgic atmosphere of Arcade Fire's “Wake Up”, which was used in the much-celebrated trailer. It just merely scrapes by as a sufficient score, yet several tracks have Karen O unnecessarily singing, and when Jonze decides to let these moments of the score play out over fairly effective scenes, it feels as though Karen O takes the front seat of the scene and undermines all cohesion between the beautiful aesthetics and the otherwise efficient compositions.
With that said, for once Jonze has made a film in which the indulgent aesthetics are entirely merited, for the world that Max travels to is his very own: built and exaggerated from numerous objects which Jonze's camera scans over in the opening twenty minutes. The expansions of these objects into larger grandiose figures proves to be one of the films finest achievements in contributing to its atmosphere of replicating childhood complacency. In the rare case of Where the Wild Things Are, style and substance are one and the same.
It must be said though, that Wild Things’ main intention, for its older viewers, lies within being a transportive experience in which the viewer returns to the simplicity of childhood. I struggled in joining this trajectory due to the numerous blemishes which withdrew me from the experience, so in that part, the film’s main ambition failed. But others (many others, for I can see there being a largely agreeable consensus) will surely find the complete opposite of my words and be fully submerged into the film’s intentions.
Another one of these aforementioned blemishes would be the film’s rather overbearing opening which illustrates Max alienated from his family and surroundings due to his inventive mind. Jonze places an overemphasis on the exposition of these themes instead of answering to the call of dramatic subtlety. Also, within the body of the narrative, Jonze curiously underplays the relationship between Max and Carol, which plays out as an integral part of the denouement. This dampens the overall dramatic potential of the ending.
Where The Wild Things Are is probably the best film it could have been under the circumstances in which it was made, and for many moviegoers it will surely live up to the hype of the impressive trailer, or even surpass it. But a select few, whom are as picky as I, may not share the same experience that their peers describe. Regardless, it's worth giving Wild Things a chance, because the chance to be transported back to the simplicity and complacency of childhood is surely worth more than the admission price.
posted by adam cook