Brandon's Word: Where the Wild Things Are is a Profound Adventure
by Brandon Lee Tenney
October 15, 2009
This film, Where the Wild Things Are, directed and co-written by auteur Spike Jonze, based on the seminal children's book authored by Maurice Sendak, is not for you. Rather, its very existence and purpose is meant not for you as you are now, today. Its themes and breathtaking visuals and deep, inky explorations aren't for you, the twenty/thirty/forty-year-old. Where the Wild Things Are is, instead, for the angst-filled, confused, whimsical nine/ten/eleven/twelve-year-old inside us all. For the part of us that feels directionless. For the part of us that is without. That's yearning, learning. That's wayward and possibly even hopeless.
The nagging scab that feels like a failure. And the unbridled, inexplicable joy. The itch that knows not what to say. And the unabashed tongue that knows not when to stop. Where the Wild Things Are is a buoy for that person, those feelings. It's that person that you'll become as the first frame flickers to life, vital and dynamic, on screen. Where the Wild Things Are is transportive. It's revelatory and addled, eloquent and obtuse, a singular vision of expression and a dichotomy of emotion--a heart triple its regular size beating irregularly at quadruple its accustomed pace. And perhaps one of the most personal, beautiful, complex films I've seen on screen.
But before I continue this exploration of Where the Wild Things Are, I'd like to discuss The Lost Generation, of which I will make reference. A term first coined by Gertrude Stein and popularized by Ernest Hemingway used to characterize a general sense of disillusionment has found itself re-appropriated for the twenty-first century as a descriptor of members of Generation Y, usually affluent, well-educated twenty/thirty-somethings, who've found themselves displaced and disproportionately effected by the current economic downturn.
I, like many of you I'm sure, am a member of this Lost Generation. Not for a lack of trying, I've suffered a long period of unemployment without any prospects or options. I've lived off credit, and I've seen my college diploma collect dust atop its scowl of disapproval and shame. I've felt lost and like a failure, knowing not what or where or how my next step should be. And even though I'm not--by any stretch--alone in this, it's loneliness that I feel. A loneliness--or, maybe more pertinently, a forlornness--that Where the Wild Things Are taps into and lets bubble, flow, and spill throughout the theatre. So, while the film is able to latch 'hold of the child inside us all, Where the Wild Things Are speaks to The Lost Generation in a way that is perhaps even more profound.
And the language in which it speaks is provocative. Wild Things is deep, galvanizing introspection and reflection on screen with each scene. Much of the film--maybe most of the film--sits beneath even the bedrock at the bottom of the sea it traverses. It's written sparsely, but with weight, capturing and distilling a child's pure emotion into anthropomorphized characters. That child, Max (played stunningly by Max Records), is presented as ragingly complex and confused and lost in a way that is immediately familiar, yet wholly unique. The tug of war between the life he knew and loved fading into the strange and discontented. With all of this in opposition to his expectations. The whirlwind of emotion is enough to cause him to hide in his imagination, where only the things he wants to happen will happen. So he runs there, literally and metaphorically. And it's there that the Wild Things are. Embodiments of his turbulent affections. His greatest strength and greatest fear both.
If there's one, glaring fault in Where the Wild Things Are, it's its pacing -- especially the film's rushed beginning. Though the film establishes Max, his mother, and subtly--but affectively--elucidates the familial turmoil Max is undergoing, Wild Things is unabashed in its desire to get you to the world of the Wild Things as quickly as possible. The events and motivations for Max's departure from his normal life do not reach enough of a fever pitch to warrant such a departure. Max's goading of his mother (played by Catherine Keener in a beautifully understated performance), the involvement of her boyfriend (played by Mark Ruffalo), and what could have been a more cataclysmic showdown at the dinner table would have intensified the situation to a believable degree where his mental and physical escape would have been warranted. Though, upon the first glimpse of the Wild Things, it's difficult to remember that quibble and easier to understand just why Spike Jonze wanted us there as soon as possible.
The sheer technical prowess of this film is something to behold. The Jim Henson Company's life-size monsters paired with the supremely expressive digitized, computer generated faces of the Wild Things is astonishing. Their eyes alone are utterly captivating. Voiced by the likes of James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, and Chris Cooper, the Wild Things steal this film. Akin to Guillermo del Toro's proclivity to utilize as many practical effects and characters as possible in order to retain the maximum amount of believability on screen, Jonze's decision to use real, actual puppets able to interact with Max and the environment allows Where the Wild Things Are to establish a connection and subconscious trust with the audience without ever having to do any more than merely photograph the scene with them as a part. Spike Jonze's photography ranges from melancholic to whimsical with ease and without issue. It's a beautifully looking film. Each frame purposeful and revealing. Capturing every tone, each emotion with earnest.
But all of this would never have even stood in front of a lens without Spike Jonze's and Dave Egger's script. The naiveté and immaturity and childishness of the Wild Things is never hackneyed. Max is never annoying, but is always very much a kid who acts, feels like, and experiences his surroundings like a kid. The film reaches goose skin-inducing highs and bleary-eyed lows so adeptly and with such control that the subtle, inner turmoil that's established early on is able to be expounded upon and engorged without the film ever crumpling under its own weight. A weight that is quite considerable, mind you. Examining a young boy's discovery of self-agency, his raging, uncontrollable emotions, his yearning for control and the realization that impossibility to please everyone is absolute. Displaying the very facets of his emotions as embodiments -- as the Wild Things. Anger and love and logic and confusion and fear and cowardice. It's wonderful.
Though, all of the above is moot when asked if Where the Wild Things Are is relatable to kids. There are a couple terrifying moments that are reminiscent of the children's films of yesteryear, but, for the most part, it's simply the film's introspective, esoteric nature that leads me to believe that it's a film that will be lost on kids, though one that could lead to a very rewarding discussion filled with plenty of questions with one's son or daughter. But, as I expressed earlier, Wild Things is neither for kids nor adults, but the intersection of both. It demands reflection on experiences long passed and emotions ably recalled. For this reason, above all, it's an anthem for The Lost Generation. An extraction and condensation of the frustration of being out of control of one's future.
In the film, KW, one of the Wild Things, confesses to Max: "It's hard being a family." Packed into that simple sentence is the entirety of Where the Wild Things Are and every emotion evoked from it. Because even though it is hard being a family or part of a society on board what seems to be a rudderless ship or just being a person who's lost for the moment and overcome by some wild thing of their own, it's realizing that not knowing is always the first step to finding out. And it's Where the Wild Things Are now, this new Spike Jonze version, that's able to throw golden hour's light brightly, hopefully, brilliantly upon just that.