Like Fantasia set to an indie-rock soundtrack, Where the Wild Things Are strings along a series of dazzling and incoherent images complemented by musical compositions which reinforce and/or augment meaning and mood. Spike Jonze—director of music videos, the one-two meta punch of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and actor who played Three Kings’s hilarious hick—serves up Maurice Sendak’s children’s book as a music video where the best scenes are extended sequences of motion, color, sound and mood. And so moody! Jonze and hipster novelist Dave Eggers have plumbed the book’s inherent darkness and come up with a world of lonely people (I suppose a denouement-set montage scored with Eleanor Rigby would have been too on-the-nose) whose only consolation is acting out like—wait for it—a wild thing.
Young Max, like so many child protagonists, is fatherless and lacking in friends. His ripe imagination, showcased in the “real world” scenes where he composes freudian-slip stories for his mom and barks orders at a fence, provides the excuse for the film’s extended digression on loneliness, fantasy and escape. After biting his mom and shouting Sendak’s brilliant child-angst exclamation “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” at her, he runs out of the house into dark suburbia and ends up in a fantasy-wilderness of heaving, anthropomorphized beasts who share Max’s confusion, loneliness and anger. Like the fatherless Max, they are kingless and pine for someone to bring authoritative order to their lives. One of the film’s central tensions is the problem of authority; not that these beings despise it, but rather they long for it and find it elusive. Glum concessions like “There’s no such thing as a king” suggest the intractable chaos left in the wake of absent fathers and, ultimately, an absent god.
Jonze shot the film in Australia, its images painted like some beautiful desolation, wide open spaces that are all rustic earth tones and blue skies. Those music video sequences show Max and the wild things at play, running, having a dirt fight and—most spectacularly—building the greatest child’s fort ever conceived. Max orders the wild things to construct it, and they rip trees straight out of the ground in order to thatch a hulking home for themselves. The film’s other great tension is that between self and other, individual and community; if Max learns any lesson, it is that he must consider the needs and feelings of others in his words and actions. This comes to a head when the others realize that Max had only himself and his imagination in mind when he designed the fort. The wild things’ friendship provides him with support, but also exposes his selfishness.
All the poetry of themes and images granted, I still found the film contrived. Maybe were I a couple of years younger, or perhaps less in touch with the roots of my own loneliness and angst (and what I take, as a Christian, to be some plausible solutions), then I might have emotionally resonated with its thematic structure. Jonze and Eggers succeed at describing and illustrating the isolation and loneliness of growing up fatherless and friendless with a moody, great-looking and mildly frightening film. This is no small accomplishment. Yet that darkness remains a little too intractable, too unresolved. Not that the conclusion needed to wrap up all of Max’s issues, but making the changes he went through more explicit would have helped.
Where the Wild Things Are evokes another Disney classic, Alice in Wonderland. Any narrative framework that moves from the real to the fantastic/absurdist and back to the real involving wide-eyed children does. I like the film better than Disney’s Alice, but not better than another recent film which evoked it, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. I think the difference might be that while Max seemed coddled when he returned home, Chihiro was so transformed by her wild ride that she didn’t need to be coddled. I like my coming of age movies to convey the dynamics of the central character, however subtle and token. If Wild Things wasn’t intended as a coming of age movie, but perhaps rather a child’s rebellious night out of the house, then I find its one hundred angsty and childish minutes as self-indulgent as the chocalate cake Max enjoys at its end.