Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where Your Feelings Are Hurt: Where the Wild Things Are

When I was growing up, my family never had a lot of children’s books lying around – for whatever reason. Nevertheless, I clearly remember my father telling me bedtime stories. He told a great story full of adventure about an English rabbit named Tom Tippet who sails away from home on the back of a whale to a desert island where Tom eventually gets tired of eating bananas and pines for home and carrots.

My wife and I, however, read countless children’s books to our daughter and son – some titles countless times – and we accumulated massive collections stuffed into multiple bookshelves, but not one of those books was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. It’s just not a book that had touched our childhoods, and it was never a book our children demanded.

Thus – and this is the truth, however hard to believe it is – when I went to see the popularly anticipated film adaptation directed by Spike Jonze last night, I had never read the award-winning children’s bestseller by Sendak.

The movie starts out with the delightful, Puck-faced Max Records as Max, a boy who suffers a number of frustrations that lead to his wild rampage. He’s playing alone; his single mother obviously works late. His older sister, abandoning Max as she transitions into adolescence, ignores him too, and her friends wreck Max’s igloo. His mother – played by Catherine Keener who has totally perfected the role of the loving but sort of neglectful single mother who must have been a hippie in her younger days – has a boy friend (Mark Ruffalo) over for dinner that night.

Now Max is so starving for attention he bites his mother, races down the street, finds a sailboat and a sea in the middle of the city, and crosses the tumbling waves to the land of the Wild Things – which turns out to be a world that’s kind of like a Sesame Street episode taken over by the members of a hippie commune who talk like college students sitting in a café discussing the ills of the world. There’s less adventure than morose expressions of hurt feelings. There’s less whimsical fun than preachy lessons about friendship, acceptance, and not hurting people’s feelings. The film’s tone is as bland and moralistic as an episode of Davey and Goliath.

I have to say I was really glad when Max jumped into his sailboat – the seascapes are breathtaking – and got away from those downer Wild Things.

After leaving the theater, I went over to Barnes and Noble and read the book for the first time.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!"

Punished, Max watches in amazement as his room turns into a jungle and he embarks on a journey that is more whimsical adventure – albeit a subtly symbolic one – than brooding moralistic lesson about friendship and acceptance.

There’s nothing wrong with the film’s message. In fact, I praise the film for providing sound lessons that most likely will reach children of all ages – a film that is the antithesis of those loud, vapid, ludicrous kids’ films with talking dogs and cats whose humor includes mention of poop, smelling butts, and hairballs. I don’t mind a moral. I just could have done with more whimsy and adventure in a story that promises to go where the wild things are.


FilmDr said...

That's freaky that you never ran into Where the Wild Things Are as a child. I noticed in Slate that there is a parallel review to yours, again not all that thrilled with the Wild Things themselves:

Perhaps some beasts are better left to the imagination.

Hokahey said...

"Perhaps some beasts are better left to the imagination." Yes, I think so. I imagine it would be very difficult to fill something like this with a sense of wonder. Max Records certainly does his job - as when he describes the grand fort he would like them to build - but then the Wild Things get all mopey and drab and Waiting for Godot.

Craig said...

Agreed. I liked Max Records, Catherine Keener, the voyage at sea, the first 15 minutes. Everything after that became almost imperceptibly disappointing; I'm not quite sure I can pinpoint the exact moment but the experience definitely doesn't offer Sendak's giddy rush of fright. Zombieland, in a weird way, comes closer to that tone.

I'm curious what kids think of this hunch is not much. When that damned goat asked Max, "Will you make the sadness go away?" I nearly shouted, "Dear God, I hope so!"

Hokahey said...

Yeah, that goat. "Will you make the sadness go away?" This is when the whole thing had the tone of Waiting for Godot. I wanted that enormous fort construction to fall over and smash that goat! Why are we here? What's the point? Oz had the mopey Tin Man, but it also had the optimistic Scarecrow and the hilarious Lion.

Daniel Getahun said...

"a journey that is more whimsical adventure – albeit a subtly symbolic one – than brooding moralistic lesson about friendship and acceptance."

That's a bingo. I remember the book as being a lot of fun, and I'm pretty sure that's how everyone else fondly remembers it, too, as much as they all now talk about the lessons. It's like saying we all love Seuss' "Green Eggs & Ham" because it taught us such deep and meaningful lessons as children.

Anyway, I still found Wild Things a visual spectacle, but I was really not emotionally moved at all.

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Daniel - "That's a bingo!" Very clever; made me laugh; and I love any allusion to Inglourious Basterds.

Visually, there were some impressive images: the desert, especially the seaside. But I agree, I was not engaged emotionally.

Daniel Getahun said...

Figured you might like that reference, but I can't fully take credit for using it in comment fashion! Fits nicely when somebody nails a point, though, as you did.

Anonymous said...

one of the main things that make this movie seem less "child-like" was the actors they chose for the voices, especially James Gandolfini (from the Sopranos)

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment. Definitely, the voices really took me away from the world of the Wild Things. Some of them sounded too much like hippies whining about a bummer experience. The most irritating voice was the voice of KW. And where did that name come from? KW?