When Spike Jonze comes up in conversation, girls in knee socks twinkle and shake. They go all aglow. Guys in knee socks too, for that matter. Is it the name Spike? Is it the It’s Oh So Quiet music video? Is acting indifferent about the man a social faux pas? Much like using the phrase “faux pas”? Probably all of the above. Probably not because of his movies though, which are really dark and disturbing. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation are the psychological equivalents of an earthquake and a hurricane. Should we expect anything different out of Where The Wild Things Are? (Hint: no.)
Max is an ordinary boy with an extraordinary imagination. His older sister is too cool to hang out with him and his mother has a new boyfriend. He feels alone. If he were in his forties, he’d be an alcoholic and a writer. But he’s like 9 or something, so he runs away to an island with odd creatures, convinces them to make him their king, and gets a crash course in Hobbesian philosophy. Whoa. Wait up. Alex, you’re going to fucking ruin my childhood for me right now aren’t you? This is supposed to be a story about magic and portals and magic portals that transport you to magic lands that only magic portals know exist! Wrong. This is the state of nature: if you don’t die now, you definitely will later.
Max and his new friends (employees? slaves?) thrash through forests and deserts, blindly avoiding danger at every turn. Barreling bodies fly and are flung carelessly through the air, obliterating everything. Max is nearly crushed a couple times before almost falling off a cliff. He could, at any moment and in any imaginable way, be tragically murdered. And it’s not just me being morbid and cynical. It’s cold, dark, and the wild things are depressed. Max could really die here. And this is before they try to sew back together the tears in their fragile society by starting a war. Lord of the Flies is a kids book too, right?
The wild things rage and cry and pout and moan. They’re typical bratty children, except they’re voiced by the likes of James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, and Forest Whitaker. That’s a grizzled old trio on the playground. Max tries to keep them happy and friendly by learning how to govern. Too bad it’s hard to run an island of misfits when your last job title was “fancy igloo builder”. Although an igloo would be astronomically safer than a glass house. Especially with all the slingshots. This kid is doomed.
I could feel audience members trying with all their might to reconcile the movie in front of them with the movie they expected. At every odd smirk or understated comment a handful would bellow out a laugh. It was the sound of a refusal to accept that such a wonderful story could be so austere. No moment better illustrated this than when the likable goat character gets his arm ripped off and white sugar pours out instead of blood. Hah!!
Is this really Straw Dogs with gorilla costumes? No. There are light, pretty moments. A sun setting or a field of flowers. They seem like last gasps to pacify the kids in the audience. Kids who, in all reality, should probably stick to Pixar.
According to We Love You So, Maurice Sendak was obsessed with the question, “How do children survive?” Spike Jonze’s movie is much closer to being an answer to this question than an adaptation of the book.
Early on in the movie Max’s school teacher tells the students the world is doomed to destruction. “The sun is dying,” he says. And it becomes a kind of catch-all for environmental disaster, nuclear war, disease, and general universal implosion. This must stick in Max’s mind because his fantastic journey bears the weight of the end of the world. How much of it is he responsible for? Who knows. Better dig into that chocolate cake in the fridge while there’s still time.
Where The Wild Things Are starts today at the AMC Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki, 4-Star Theatre, and the Metreon.