RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 10: Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (2008)

Where the WIld Things Are

The Players…

Max Records, Katherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker.

The Story…

Max has had it with being a nobody in his neighborhood. His big sister dumps him in favor of playing with her friends. His mom looks as if she’d rather be with her new boyfriend. And Dad…?

Max imagines running away to a some far-off land where fantastical beasts may crown him as their king. They would play rumpus, build forts and discover secret hideaways. Sounds good, but really is that all there is to being the king of the beasts?


The Rant…

Children’s books, by design of necessity, are short. The stories within are usually quick ones and seldom, if ever, delve deep into the Graham Greene of things. Sure, kids books often have poignant messages, life lessons to learn and adorable anthropomorphic creatures coaxing the young eyes to read ever further. They’re also chockablock with amazing artwork, lets not forget, which is the usual culprit that grabs the youngin’s attention in the first place.

But one thing is an immutable truth: kids’ books are f*ckin’ short. We don’t want attention spans to be taxed or eyes to become strained. We want a five to ten minute respite from chaos and screeching that only a Shel Silverstein or a Dr. Suess could deliver to frantic parents everywhere. Kids want a quick break to let their imagination grow fallow, if only for a bit. Only daydreaming is faster. And cheaper.

Most movies are not short. Decidedly so. If they were, at least in today’s market, they’d probably not have much of a client base. Too many other mobile distractions to contend with, like kids books. It is a very precarious thing to stretch a 30-page, less than 100 words, heavily illustrated, razor-thin missive into a precise 88 minutes of celluloid glory. Standalone it hasn’t worked yet; you gotta add a lot of breadcrumbs to that meatloaf. So far there have been the bastardization of several of Dr. Seuss’ most beloved tales (How The Grinch…, Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, etc.) that have illustrated this point. His books went through the Hollywood meat grinder and out came the gristle. What the brevity and efficiency of a children’s book has on the page does not marry well to cinema. Screenwriters have to apply a lot of padding, altering the script to miles away from the original, concise plot and hire a lot of dippy-ass tunesmiths to churn out the shiny for little kid ears. The junior target audiences that were entranced by the source material in the first place, now yanking a recalcitrant mom and/or dad to the multiplex in a frothing frenzy are en route to a let down. It’s inevitable.

God, this sh*t pisses me off. Let’s face facts. Once here I claimed that Hollywood erroneously views us  moviegoers as stupid. So under this premise the average adult moviegoer adult is stupid, then according to marketing the kids must be f*cking brain-dead. They’ll watch any colorful dreck that gets smeared on the screen and has a toy and cereal tie-in. Here’s a common fallacy: kids are stupid. I was a teacher once. Kids—and it seems the younger they are, the harder it is to bullsh*t them—are a lot smarter than they let on. Most are actually a lot smarter than most adults, like George W, Donald Trump and Donald Sterling. I’ve been privy to a lot of movies aimed at kids. Being a dad, I seldom get a say in what movie to go out and see nowadays. What I watch is almost always animated, Disneyesque, hyper and pandering. Funny thing here is kids know they get short-changed pretty soon on in the movie. Here’s a common conflict in regarding, say, a Seuss adaptation: “This isn’t how it was in the book! The book was much better!” This is usually followed by a scowly pout and an eventual smattering of Twizzlers ricocheting off the other sibling’s head, which proves to be much more entertaining than the movie slipping off the sprockets. They squirm in their seats. They get bored and say so. They want to leave and start whining about it. And Mom or Dad try to hush them, knowing full well that they ain’t gonna recoup the twenty plus dollars wasted on this time spent in the dark. Mom and Dad are forcing them to watch the car wreck out of spite at this point. The kids know they got gypped. Like I said, smart.

Pillaging Maurice Sendak’s magnum opus was not particularly smart, either. And it wasn’t pillaged well to boot…

Max (Records) is your typical, nine-year-old (at least he looks nine) kid, full of unhinged energy and idful abandon. He likes to terrorize the family pet, incite snowball fights with his big sister’s friends, and be the lord of a fantasyland of his own creation, much to the exasperation of his mom. You know, standard kid stuff.

So Max is attention starved. Not surprising with his older sister Claire more interested in hanging out with her friends and mom (Keener) being a harried single parent trying to juggle both career and homestead with equal attention. Max being in the middle—or at the bottom of the totem pole, depends where you’re looking—he acts out often. He can be defiant, mouthy and even violent. Looks like a Ritalin candidate if there ever was one.

One evening, dressed in his signature wolf costume, Max is feeling particularly punchy since Mom’s male “friend” has come over for dinner, hogging his spotlight. Feeling slighted, he tears it up, howling and standing on the dinner table and actually assaulting Mom with a wolf bite to the shoulder. That’s enough. Mom is furious and Max is chased out of the house, scrabbling through the streets, tears streaming down his face. He’ll show them. He’ll run away from home and they’ll all be sorry. He’s the king of the beasts, not some beastly kid.

After hitching a ride on a sloop on the beach, Max sets sails to points afar, places where he will be appreciated and understood. Enduring an interminable transatlantic stormy passage, Max washes up on the shores of a remote island, and quickly discovers that he is not alone. The island is populated by fantastic beasts, all of whom seem out of sorts, like they need some guidance. Max knows what to do. He has found his people. Let the wild rumpus begin…!

Like I said, children’s books are short, and the movies based on those books need a lot of applesauce to fill up time. Most of the time it’s dreadful (I cite the adaptation of The Lorax as a good example), stuffed to the gunwales with bad jokes, extraneous dialogue, crappy musical montages and additional, irrelevant plot points separate form the source material added just to, well, stretch it out. To be fair, there are exceptions to this issue. For one, I thought the adaption of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was in some ways superior to the book, it being very funny, nodding an winking and even providing an actual explanation and backstory (e.g.: plot) to the hijinks in Chewandswallow. But this is an exception. Usually a lot of padding robs the original story of its power that so entranced the audience in the first place. This practice seems very shady to me, as if the powers that be added crap to just to pander to the kiddies’ imagination that absorbed more emotional stimulus in fifteen minutes by merely reading the source material. Competition for attention, as well as flammable dollars. It’s like they know, and probably full well, that by adding all the claptrap will keep the keys jingling in front of their juvenile audience.

However, unlike The Lorax, Wild does decidedly not pander to the kiddies. It does the direct opposite. It barely panders to kids at all. It does however f*ck with the source material just enough to make itself feel overblown and stodgy. Jonze went and took a universally adored book and went and put it through the existentialist Cuisinart. The final result was an intractable movie ostensibly aimed at kids and families, but ended up as a freshman year philosophy treatise on phenomenology.

Wake up.

Okay, enough babbling. Wild is a bloated attempt to simultaneously cash in on a generation’s nostalgia and wax philosophical about the ways of childhood anger and fear. That’s it. Adolescent and mopey. This film uses Sendak’s book as an excuse, not an homage, as a means to an end for Jonze’s jaundiced vision. He went and made a metaphysical kids movie. While this counts for originality (as far as adaptations of childhood literature go), it makes for lousy storytelling.

Yeah, I know. I’m being pretty awful here, trashing an honest attempt to bring the book to life. Wild misses the mark in its stilted execution, and sucks all the wonder away in a very angular fashion. It’s so goddam serious. There is not much connection to the sweet yet salty Sendak tale, and is padded with philosophical drivel with all the subtlety of a fart at a funeral. The pacing is languid, like walking through syrup. Even the wild thing beasties seem half asleep in their activities most of the movie. This wasn’t the movie to watch late at night. A cough syrup cocktail works just as well to drift off that sitting through Wild (don’t ask me how I know this).

I’ll quit masticating on the movie for a bit and talk about the good stuff. There are some notable goodies in Wild. Max’s acting was pretty good. At least he channeled storybook Max’s vital aspects to live action—the childish raving, trying to be a good boy, and the innocent regret for his actions. Our lead is not easily likeable nor immediately endearing at first glance, but he wins your over and makes for a good vehicle to serve the audience. On this level, Jonze (whose spelling I’ve always thought pretentious) at least recognized on a vestigial level that Wild was supposed to be a kids movie, so he let his lead run riot. Records’ performance was the only refreshing aspect of the whole movie.

There are also some stunning visuals. The seams separating CGI from live action is virtually untraceable here. A high note. The wild things themselves are rendered almost hair for feather with such exactitude you have to get that Jonze is truly trying to convey the message of the book. He overdoes it, but he wasn’t dressing Mike Myers up as a winking cat. Simply put, the Sendak creations look quite Sendak. At least on these grounds, Jonze remembered his muse, and didn’t swat it.

Overall, there is an inherent sweetness to the film, but it’s too bad it’s just so forced. There is a message Jonze keeps trying to hammer into the audience’s skulls, almost like cinema verite with a rather blurry concept of dealing with childhood anger. After watching Wild you kind of wish there was a dippy song-and-dance montage placed in the story just to lighten it up a bit. This flick was too heavy, both in philosophy and execution. It was the cinematic equivalent of eating a heavy meal. Too much padding, in a non-kid way.

Throughout the film I found myself asking myself, “Why is this film boring?” The answer is that it felt more like a symposium than a family film. It was dour and ponderous, and there definitely wasn’t enough rumpus. For a kid film, it sure wasn’t kid friendly. Three-quarters into the movie, I hit MENU and skipped to the end. Dissatisfied with the conclusion, I turned it off, put down my pen and decided to go to bed, tiring of feeling vicious.

When I got to my room, my dinner was still hot.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Better you go reread the book instead. To your kids. They’ll thank you.

Stray Observations…

  • “I don’t think the crazy’s been eliminated.”
  • Writing a kids book within a movie based on a kids book? Pretty clever (and cute) meta.
  • “All right tree. We’ll settle this later.”
  • Jonze got his start directing music videos (e.g.: Beastie Boys, Dinosaur Jr, etc). It shows here.
  • Did I mention the sick amount of padding in adaptations like this? I might’ve missed mentioning something.

Next Installment…

Who killed Elizabeth Short, AKA The Black Dahlia? Gonna get all true crime up in yo’ ass.

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