3 THINGS I LIKED:
1. Spike Jonze’s creative – and seemingly effortless – direction.
Jonze has a precise, subtle way with a camera, and in Where the Wild Things Are, his direction is as good as ever. Without ever drawing attention to itself, it is wonderfully effective at creating meaning through the standard filmic elements.
In one particularly moving and creative sequence, the main character, Max, races into the secret hiding place of one of the wild things, Carol, hoping to find him there. Max enters the place – a cave – excitedly, hopefully, with the intention of mending their friendship. But he quickly discovers that Carol is not there, and that all is not well. The place is a disaster. Carol has destroyed his favorite place. Of course, we see the disappointment and the confusion on Max’s face, but Jonze also allows us to enter into the psyche of his main character through the camera, as all good directors do. As in other places throughout the film, Jonze uses a bouncy hand-held to represent Max’s inner turmoil, his anger, his fear, his lack of understanding. But he also employs some really fantastic static shots to create moments of pathos. In this particular scene, we see Max’s confusion through the hand-held, but then we see his sense of loss, his sadness, we understand that he is mourning, through a quiet, still, wide shot. The calm after the storm, if you will. He is on his knees, surrounded by rock and water and light, completely alone, utterly confounded, full of regret and remorse. And Jonze wide shot reveals the drama of this moment wonderfully. But it would have been less meaningful were it not juxtaposed with the more harsh hand-held shots. Such are the decisions of filmmaking.
2. The portrayal of the mother.
Sadly, Hollywood parents are often portrayed as dull and overbearing, incompetent and dimwitted. Parents are often one dimensional caricatures while, on the other hand, children are often portrayed as the intelligent, understanding ones, the multi-dimensional, complicated characters. Certainly, children are each of those things. But so are parents and Hollywood has, in my opinion, done a great disservice in setting forth parents as such flimsy characters.
It would have been easy – and perhaps more financially profitable too – for Where the Wild Things Are to follow suit. Yet, to their credit, Jonze and co. didn’t take that approach. Instead, they created a more true, more real, dynamic between mother and son.
Max is not a hero. He’s troubled and disobedient and angry. Like all children, he is fully capable of doing terrible, horrible things. But he’s also creative and has the potential to be kind and do much good. He wants people to be happy but doesn’t know how to make that happen. He doesn’t even know how to make himself happy.
Meanwhile, the mother is not some dumb grinch. No, she’s a loving but frustrated mother. She’s intrigued and inspired by her son’s creativity and generally good heart, but she’s at her wits end with his sometimes “out of control” behavior. Like many single parents, she doesn’t know how to raise this kid. The scenes between the two are some of the film’s best (despite taking place in our world!). I very much appreciate, and was moved by, this dynamic, by the way Jonze carefully and lovingly developed the relationship between Max and his mom.
3. The terror.
As my good friend Tyler pointed out, WTWTA contains some moments of very real terror, horrifying scenes in many ways. But they are terrifying not because of some flimic manipulation, or because of blood and guts, but because of the pure human drama of the moments, the kind of drama we all know and experience.
For example, early in the film, Max gets buried under a pile of snow that used to be his igloo. His sister’s friend jumped on it while he was in it and it collapsed on top of him. Jonze shoots the scene so that the viewer is under the snow with him, buried and struggling to breathe. Most everybody knows what it’s like to be a kid and be buried under a pile of snow, or people, and to have to struggle to breathe. It’s truly terrifying at first. The same effect is used when Max is buried under all the wild things, who clearly don’t know their own collective weight. It’s scary to be a kid and have no control, to not be able to breathe and to be too small to make sure you can.
It’s possible that such scenes, and others like them, will be too much to handle for young kids. If so, then who cares? Take your kids when they’re ready. Why do we need to force them to see a movie because some ad campaign said it was good for kids? At the same time, like the much more terrifying Grimm’s Fairy Tales, this is the kind of story that kids need to see and hear. It’s the job of the storyteller to tell good stories and the parents and adults to help kids understand and appreciate them. And this is one good story.
Ultimately it’s about learning to cope without control, about learning to control oneself when you can’t control anything else. Where the Wild Things Are is about, I think, learning to behave gracefully when everything around you is a crazy mess. That, I think, is a lesson that kids and adults alike need to hear.
Where the Wild Things Are reminds me of a famous poem by Kipling that most people know but is worth a fresh encounter:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!