Posted by: gdevi | October 25, 2009

Movie Review: Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

In the Night Kitchen, Brundibar, Where the Wild Things Are — along with Munschworks, Sendak’s stories were Dayani’s favorite stories when she was little. Part of the problem of classifying children’s literature is right there in that phrase “when she was little.” Because she is still little–she is nine. I started reading Sendak’s stories to her–the big book versions with those luminous illustrations–when she was four and five years old. That chunky naked baby boy swimming in and out of pages, lifted out of one, dropped into the other in In the Night Kitchen, the menacing Brundibar reminiscent of a Nazi soldier, the ailing mother and the helpless children, the beasts with no past in Where the Wild Things Are — were they appropriate stories for a four year old child? I thought so, though I could sense when I read them to her, that these stories did not differentiate between the world of children and adults and that the same horrors that pursue adults, pursue children as well.  Children respond to them differently. Adults respond to them differently. Sendak knew this and that is what is truthful and enduring about these books. I took Dayani and Aylin to see Where the Wild Things Are today and I must admit that I went with some trepidation; I would have been so saddened if it was something unbearable. Director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers have fleshed out the story considerably, (the original story is only 8 or 10 sentences long), but the substantial screenplay, careful directing, and the spare, bare-bone settings give us the raw and simple vision of childhood that we experience in Sendak’s story. The children loved it; so did I.

In Sendak’s story, mother, tired of his mischiefs tells Max, “you’re a wild thing!” and Max tells her “I am going to eat you!” because that is what wild things do. So he is sent to bed without supper. Alone in his room, Max watches his room turn into a dark forest and then an open sea with a special boat for him to voyage out to where those just like him, the wild things, are. The semantic overdetermination that is so sweet, raw and sublime all at once in Sendak’s story has a seemingly different treatment in the film version; Max is unhappy with his home life with a tired and overworked mother (beautifully played by Catherine Keener), her boyfriend that he does not like, and a sister who ignores him. He runs away after a fight with his mother where he bites her, out to the river bank which acts as a portal to take him to where the wild things are.  Even with such plot development, Dave Eggers’s screenplay does catch the Freudian nuances of a child sent to bed without supper, very beautifully.  The themes of dependence, anxiety and aggression subliminally suggested in Sendak’s story are wonderfully developed in the movie version. The references to mouth, teeth, eating, and food starting with Max’s recounting for his mother his story of a vampire that loses all his teeth and is ostracized by all other vampires, his aggressive biting of his mother, the wild things that want to eat him, the gentle female wild thing KW that swallows him and keeps him safe in her stomach from the other wild things who want to eat him when they find out he is not really a king—we know where this is going–Max does not want to be king like his father reassured him to be–he is little Max pretending to be a wild thing. Children will want to play at “rumpus” for a while, but in the end, they need a hot supper and a warm bed with a loving parent.

Traditional animation and animatronic figures composed of clean and simple geometric lines curving in on themselves, sort of like a handprint, much like Sendak’s illustrations themselves as well as the earth-toned ocean-desert-forest setting used in this movie capture the unique wackiness of Sendak’s monstrous creatures and their habitat. The young actor, 11 year old Max Record who plays the wild child Max has a somewhat closed, thoughtful, sad and sweet face; it is always this shy of doing something unpredictable and already adept at playing complex emotions.  You can see on his face his longing to play with his sister’s friends when he throws snow balls at them. You can see the gears turning inside his head when he comes up with stories of his magical powers to tame the wild things on the island. Jonze and Eggers have touched the soul of Sendak’s little story very lovingly and carefully. The scene where Max sees the wild fires up on the hill where the wild things live from his boat is eerily archetypal–the dream of every traveler lost in an open sea looking for a safe shore to touch land.  I liked the soundtrack as well by Karen O and Carter Burwell; music that both adults and children will enjoy. A good adaptation; go see it please and never send your child to bed without supper. Sometimes they might not make it back from where the wild things are.


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