When I first heard that Spike Jonze, director of two of my favorites Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, was making a feature out of Where the Wild Things Are I thought, “How in the world is he going to do that?” Then I watched the trailer and it looked like it actually had potential to be good. The trailer planted the suggestion that the movie aimed to identify the “wild thing” in all of us and call it out. And recently I read a Q&A in Newsweek with Jonze, screenplay writer Dave Eggers, and author Maurice Sendak in which they described the movie as being potentially too scary for children; and made less for children and more about childhood. One of the panelist added that Where the Wild Things Are was created to be the The Wizard of Oz for the era of dysfunctional families—which added a certain measure of intrigue. I understand that the last thing some of us want to see at the movies is a slice of reality, but I can usually enjoy seeing a version of reality through the eyes of a gifted storyteller. Often this version opens eyes to the beauty around us and creates a heightened sense of what it means to be alive. These disclosures combined with a Metacritic score of 71 led me to conclude that Where the Wild Things Are was worth seeing.
Alas, I was wrong. I can’t possibly recommend this movie. Not only did it not deliver on its stated intentions. But neither did it deliver on the things I thought I might be able to take away—namely, that there’s something beautiful in us that only the wild can conjure. That even standing at the intersection of Chaos and Abandonment, the human spirit can will its way home. That Max, the 10-year-old son of a flawed single mother, would discover something deep inside —something that he discovers had been there all along—that allows him to see himself as King of the wild things but also king in other ways. That despite the messages he gets at home, he could discover that, yes, he does have “what it takes.” And along the way I found myself wanting to see healing instead of concession, which is what happened within every character as the closes in a whimper.
So the tale ends with each character for the most part in defeat. Yes, there can be a freedom of sorts in these sort of acknowledgments and epiphanies. I remember reading years ago in a book called Reading Faulknerian Tragedy by Warwick Wadlington that in a nuclear age in which each and every one of us lives with the threat of total and absolute annihilation, the world no longer yields the capacity for heroes. Wadlington concludes (now why do I remember this? Oh, right. Because I’m sick.) this because in the world he describes we are all heroes. We all face overwhelming odds yet charge off into battle with our morning coffee every day. For some reason that has always stuck with me and it bubbled up again during Where the Wild Things Are when Max learns that the sun, like all other things, will indeed die. In much the same way, in Jonze’s creation there is no capacity for a hero, either. It’s fatalistic and lacking hope. And, I ask you, what kind of a world is that? It’s a pall gray world void of color, certainly missing the wild, where every event is, to put it bluntly, pedestrian. I love the idea of a boy that refuses to be “housebroken,” instead looking to draw from the “wild thing” inside. But that never happens. Instead it’s a movie that trails off, ending in … . Ultimately, I guess, Where the Wild Things Are is a tragedy thus the net effect is something akin to motion sickness since the ride I expected from Jonze wasn’t the ride I got.
There is (or was) potential for Where the Wild Things Are, but it comes up way short. The trouble with the plot is that … there really is no plot. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the filmmakers since their source material is weak in story. There is unrealized beauty in some of the characters, but anything that might have been there is lost in the melodrama and absence of story. The biggest question I’ve got, though, is why Jonze didn’t get Charlie Kaufman to write the screenplay. That’s what we’re missing more than anything.