When the Child Wasn’t a Child
By Benjamin Mercer
Where the Wild Things Are
Dir. Spike Jonze, U.S., Warner Bros.
It’s tempting to see Spike Jonze’s last film, Adaptation, about a screenwriter’s inability to find his footing in translating Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, as a sort of anticipation of his missteps with Maurice Sendak’s ten-sentence bedtime classic Where the Wild Things Are. In adapting a literary work, particularly one that so eludes natural one-to-one transpositions, the choices are endless and hard, and some will inevitably not be the “right” ones. Sendak’s 1963 picture book follows a rambunctious boy, sent up to his room without dinner, who finds himself transported to a land of savage beasts. There he indulges his unruliness by taking part in a primitive revel—a “wild rumpus,” he calls it. Sendak’s book of course ends on a safe, no-place-like-home note, with lesson duly learned, but what distinguishes the story is its element of ferocity. The most striking, and ultimately off-putting, decision that Jonze and cowriter Dave Eggers make in the necessary amplification of this brief tale is to turn the wild rumpus into a pity party. The big-screen wild things’ displays of strength are impressive, but the only real harm they threaten is to their own psyches. The closest view of their sharp claws comes when one of them is fast asleep, writhing and moaning during a nightmare.
The sadness of the wild things—various in their appearance but uniformly beleaguered—becomes most problematic not in and of itself, or as the most obvious of Jonze and Eggers’s infidelities to the text, but when considering the melancholy’s ultimate source. The grounded real-world prologue of the film establishes its young protagonist, Max (Max Records), as a devoted fabulist, at nine old enough to express and explore his emotions in his imaginative stories. Max’s mother (Catherine Keener) requests a yarn from him so she can for a moment forget her own frustrations; Max, feeling generally starved for attention, tells a downbeat story about a vampire’s exiling from his community after the loss of his teeth. There is little doubt, then, about where the wild things really are (his imagination). The depressive fantasy that takes up most of the film feels like the creation of a resolutely disappointed adult, though, not an energetic little boy, and the film’s consistent kid’s-eye-view aesthetic only calls further attention to this fundamental dissonance. That the shadowy and complex, but nonetheless coherent, emotional lives of the wild things spring from the imagination of this tantrum-prone child remains unconvincing throughout.
Max’s encounter with the wild things begins purely as an escape from a temporarily unhappy home life. His sister’s friends wreck his igloo while trading friendly snowball fire with him, and his mother, flirting with her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) in the living room, ignores his pleas for her to come upstairs and see his imaginary rocket ship. In a bid for attention, and ostensibly to take a stand against the inclusion of frozen corn in his dinner, Max gets up on the kitchen counter, demands “Feed me, woman!” and bites his mother. (Keener has played so many foulmouthed careerist shrews that watching her tip off her frayed maternal temper in this scene by letting slip the word “damn” is one of the film’s many minor pleasures.) Max flees his house, crawls under a fence, and boards a small boat. This passage between the real world and the fantastic is the kind of delicate tonal shift Jonze manages so well (the first glimpses of the seventh-and-a-half floor in Being John Malkovich also come to mind). As the boat drifts away from the shore, the surrounding water, woods, and firmament suddenly take on a surreal quality reminiscent of the plastic natural landscape of Michel Gondry’s video for Björk’s “Human Behavior.”
Eventually Max comes ashore, and in the dead of night he observes the bigheaded and shaggy wild things in a mysterious disagreement as Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini, who appears to have been instructed to breathe as close to his microphone as possible) destroys a series of large beehive-like structures. (These enlarged stick-woven configurations suggest the land art of Andy Goldsworthy, on display in Thomas Riedelsheimer’s 2001 documentary Rivers and Tides.) Max fearlessly reveals himself, eventually gaining power over the wild things by proudly inventing stories of his previous adventures, boasting of the powerful devices he has in his possession (the most advanced being the “double re-cracker”), and finally promising the desperate creatures that he will get rid of their abiding loneliness. The grandest of his plans as king is a dream complex, a kind of DIY utopia where there will be a “real pile” for all of them to sleep on. The project is undertaken with enthusiasm, with Max assigning each wild thing a specific role in its construction, but the bitter infighting among them eventually stalls it out.
Max dreams this world up as a response to his frustrations at home, but the depths of its sorrow suggest not a kid working through a bad day but a kid resigned beyond his years. The wild things are prone to emotional outbursts not unlike the one that compels Max to flee his home, but they cannot really be called childlike. They anticipate with a measure of dread the futility of every project they embark upon, and among them there is a complex network of strained or broken allegiances. The mega-puppets have a strange, elliptical way of speaking to each other, and they’re reluctant to detail their shared histories, but Max has an opportunity to counsel each one—most notably Carol and KW (Lauren Ambrose), a couple who have drifted apart from each other—with improvised wisdoms. By doing this, Max gains some perspective on his own anger and disappointment with his family, and he begins to feel the pull of home again.
While last month’s New York Times Magazine piece on Jonze and his new film’s troubled production history made much of the influence of John Cassavetes on the dialogue, the single film it most resembles is Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. All the natural-practical talk of sticks, dirt clods, and holes in trees, not to mention the discontinuous features of the landscape the wild things inhabit (a seaside wood opens out onto barren desert), directly call to mind the first film in Van Sant’s so-called death trilogy. While Jonze is admirably adventurous in the sources from which he borrows—and the result is a film of surprisingly unusual textures, especially considering the size of its budget—the existential desperation of a film like Gerry just doesn’t square with even the darkest possible imaginings of a lively preadolescent. Where the Wild Things Are has a certain freewheeling and deliberately threadbare sense of improvisation, an appealingly casual energy that has cropped up in each of Jonze’s three features (the cinematographer Lance Acord, a Jonze regular, certainly deserves some credit for this). But what are supposed to be its kid-imagined moments of total exhilaration—the rumpus, the conception of the grand shelter, running until you’re completely out of breath—play only as temporary maybe-it’s-not-so-bad-after-all ebbs. The resulting film is often lovely, but mostly enervating—an adventure story in form but not in feeling.