If you find a steady diet of Hollywood a little bland, here is a recipe for something completely different. First, take an enduring and iconic children's literary classic—Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (about a rambunctious boy who discovers and conquers a world of giant monsters in a kingdom where he makes the rules) will do nicely. Next, bring in a rule-breaking, visionary, surrealist director like Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) and give him close to $100 million to bring Max and his monsters to the big screen. Then, find a gifted author (albeit one who's never written a screenplay before) like the ironic and whimsical Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and stir him in as a co-collaborator on the script. Season with the alt-acoustic stylings of musicians Karen O and Carter Burwell; bake for a very long time (at least two years of revisions). Then proudly serve Where the Wild Things Are, a beautiful and disturbing movie about childhood that isn't particularly palatable (or appropriate) for children.
Where the Wild Things Are is in many respects a creative triumph. The casting is terrific—young Max Records brings just the right mix of wild energy and delicate vulnerability to the role of Max, and Catherine Keener is thoroughly believable as his nurturing but over-extended single mother. Equally strong is the voice acting; the diverse roster (including James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara and Forest Whitaker) brings the monsters to wonderfully quirky life.
The film is visually stunning. Though Jonze was reportedly advised repeatedly to render the creatures via CGI, the director was determined to somehow create monsters that Max could physically interact with. To that end he devised a plan in which the fantasy characters were first voiced on a sound stage, with all of the actors acting out the scenes together while their body language was filmed. Giant, elaborate puppets were then fashioned at Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Actors clad in the creature suits then re-enacted and adapted the original actors' movements on location in Australia. Animation was later used to enhance the facial expressions of the monsters. This multi-layered process produced a species of creatures wonderfully evocative of Sendak's original drawings, and brought a special realism to the fantasy of Where the Wild Things Are.
The writing is equally fresh. The film's opening scenes introduce us to a kid who is a conflicted jumble of aggression and tenderness that will be very familiar to anyone acquainted with a young boy. Max has an appetite for destruction, and while some of his unruliness is simply innocent exuberance, part of it is more seriously routed in fear and rage over changes in his life. When viewed from his perspective, Max's behavior (donning a wolf costume and obnoxiously acting out for attention) makes perfect sense, and the film offers a painfully accurate reminder of the emotional tumult of childhood.
When Max's angst boils over and he runs away, he encounters the perfect foil for his unmanageable feelings—unmanageable monsters who are hilariously neurotic and vulnerable. Though the parallels between Max's emotions and the giants are almost too obvious—Gandolfini's impulsive Carol is unmistakably Max's psychological doppelganger—the incongruity between the monsters' imposing stature and their childish behavior keeps the proceedings highly entertaining.
But for all the elements that are delightfully right about Where the Wild Things Are, there are two problems that plague the film and seriously undermine its appropriateness for kids. The first issue is the tone of the violence in the film. While there is none of the cartoonish gore common to current action-adventure movies, there is a threatening undercurrent to much of the drama that will definitely scare some children. There is no doubt that the monsters might turn on Max and eat him; this fact seems particularly troubling and sinister because the creatures are otherwise friendly and likeable. Even Max's battle with an angry ocean is somehow more frightening than one would expect, because the sea, like the creatures, is unpredictable. The instability and insecurity of Max's world might be part of what makes the film so believable, but it also makes it potentially very disturbing for kids.
The menace that bubbles up here and there throughout the film springs from the screenplay's second problematic aspect—a subtle but pervasive post-existential angst that places young Max (and thus his viewers) in a decaying and unreliable universe. Early in the film, Max's science teacher explains that the sun will eventually burn out, but that the human race will no doubt be eradicated by any number of apocalyptic tragedies long before it does. The teacher rattles off the list of disasters that could befall humanity; at the screening I attended, the audience laughed nervously at the inappropriateness of burdening a young child with such a grim view of reality. The scene is funny, but any child who watches the film will be similarly subjected to (and burdened by) information inappropriate for young kids.
This dark view of the world extends far beyond one classroom scene. When Carol takes Max to a barren sand dune on the monsters' island, he explains sorrowfully: "All this used to be rock, then it turned to sand—then it will turn to dust. I'm not sure what comes after dust." And when Max's claims to monarchy are eventually exposed as fraudulent, the conclusion—that there is no such thing as a king with special powers—seems to strip away the power of fairytale (and perhaps, more seriously, religion) in one fell swoop.
Of course, in many respects the universe is a decaying and unreliable place. I'm just not sure I want a children's movie—even a beautiful one like Where the Wild Things Are—to force that disturbing bit of information on my kids before they're ready. Beyond that—and here is where my faith in a personal and benevolent God can't help but assert itself—I contend that there are realities that make existence stable and secure despite the universe's propensity for trouble. I don't expect every movie to make that case for me, but this film seems to go out of its way to paint the world as a hostile place. In my view, that sort of anxiety-provoking perspective on life is a monster no kid should have to face.Discussion starters
- Judith says, "Happiness isn't always the best way to be happy." What do you think she means? Is she right? Does the pursuit of happiness lead to happiness?
- Max and Carol both want a world where the things that happen are only what they want to happen—and yet they end up destroying what they've made. Why do you think that happened? Do you think they could have succeeded if they had approached their fort another way?
- One of the few times the monsters get along is when they each have a job to do. If you're a parent, do you think your kids need more or less responsibility at present? If you're a kid, do you think you need to help more or less at home?
- Carol says the rock on his island will eventually turn to dust, and he's not sure comes after dust. What do you think comes after dust? In your view, will this physical world end? If so, will anything come after? (See Revelation 21)
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Where the Wild Things Are is rated PG (for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language. The violence is rather tame (snowball and dirt clod fights and some conflict amongst the monsters) and yet the sense of potential peril is quite intense. The tone of the violence is oddly menacing and likely not appropriate for younger kids. There are a few mild curse words and usages of God's name in vain. More troubling is a pervasively dark view of the universe (including a teacher's detailed description of all the tragedies that could wipe out humankind) that will definitely create anxiety for some children.
Photos © Warner Bros.
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