Sunday, October 25, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

I saw Where the Wild Things Are today, and thought it was really good. I'm not going to talk about a whole lot of the details of the movie, but I'm also not going to concern myself too much with avoiding or labelling spoilers, so read at your own risk. (**yeah, having just reread this, it's fair to say that I give some stuff away. If you mind spoilers a lot you might want to skip this)
I don't really know how well this movie will appeal to children, but I really think it was mostly a movie about childhood that's mostly aimed at adults (and it's just as much about the kid we all carry around within us as it is about literal children). I suspect that some kids will probably like it, and other kids won't be all that engaged by it.
First off, from a technical standpoint, I thought the movie was very well done. The Wild Things just looked really cool, and Jonze's effects team managed to do an awesome job of melding the costumed creatures with some CG effects that allowed for extremely emotive facial features and expressions. The music was well chosen and well used, the acting was strong, and the scenery and locations were really cool.
Mostly, though, despite these other well executed elements, I was primarily impressed with the script. The movie is clearly heavy on symbolism and metaphor, and I think it's intentionally left vague enough for audience members to find valid, personal interpretations that relate to their own life experiences (there were some scenes in the movie where Max howls with his adopted family of Wild Things, and it deeply struck a chord in me because of the many times that I've happily howled along with Cassidy [who's a champion howler], Ryan and Jamie's dogs, and sometimes Jamie and Ryan themselves. I'm not sure that the scene would mean the same thing to everyone who watched it, but there was something about the communal nature of the whole little family howling that just rang exceptionally true for me. I'm not sure if that scene hit everyone else the same way). Additionally, of course, I think almost everyone in the movie's audience will recognize aspects of themselves within the Things. Some people will relate to some of the monsters more than others, but there's a Wild Thing in there for almost everyone- and many people will see bits of themselves in almost every single one of them.
Personal interpretations aside, there were a few themes, that I think were a little more solidified within the movie. One was the fact that the whole film was basically a journey of personal growth and discovery for Max. The Wild Things seem to represent a combination of people that Max knows combined with various aspects of Max's own personality and/or his various personality traits (this isn't as jumbled up as it sounds, I think, because some of the same characteristics in the Wild Things that initially make them comparable to other people are also things that Max eventually comes to recognize within himself).
The movie is sort of bittersweet, as I saw it. Through his experiences as king of The Wild Things (and by observing the behavior of his new friend-monsters), Max comes to understand that his family and the people in his life mostly aren't really the source of his problems. Kind of poignantly, Max comes to realize this by gaining an understanding that life is filled with sorrow, fear, anger, and all kinds of dark emotions (he learns that such things are a sort of universal part of life), and that for the most part, the people around Max are, like him, just struggling to get through as best they can. Max watches the Wild Things struggle through their relationships with each other (in their self described family), often lashing out and causing destruction and harm as a response to confusion, fear, and disappointment. As the king who fails to deliver on his promise to bring perfect happiness to the Things, Max realizes that no person can always provide the exact emotional security and support that another person needs (and that there's no way to create magical shields to protect people from ever feeling unhappy). As they comment upon in the film, we're all just trying to get by, and when someone responds to disappointment or sorrow by lashing out, they only make the problems worse (and things are hard enough as it is).
The movie is a sort of epic. Max literally goes on a journey, which, of course, ends up being a journey of self discovery. He goes from respecting the Wild Things for their destructive ways at the beginning of the film to, by the end of the movie, understanding why their pattern of destruction is really only likely to lead to more unhappiness. He moves from a place where he is primarily self interested and concerned with only his own well being to a place where he can better empathize with other people and understand that they're just struggling along and doing the best that they can. In short, the movie takes place only over a brief span of time, but in that time Max grows up an awful lot.
There are some other themes and issues woven in there as well. Jonze makes comments about the environment (parts of Max's kingdom are turning to dust), war (Max instigates a dirt clod war in an effort to cheer everyone up, which, of course, goes poorly), and there even seems to be a brief rumination on mortality (the sun, as it turns out, will someday burn out and extinguish all life, but this is a small problem for people as big and powerful as Max and Carol). These issues are seen through the eyes of a child, though, and they seem to be secondary to Max's primary, immediate concerns about how to deal with his own family. Max, after all, is still a kid, so while he might be starting to notice some of these other big issues, they seem like they're still sort of on the back burner for the time being as he focuses on his own happiness.
Anyway, it was a good movie, but it made me a little sad. Although it's a good thing to gain empathy and understanding for the people around you, it's just a little depressing that many people (children and adults) often come to these qualities through a realization that the people in their lives are also fighting their own struggles. This recognition constitutes a loss of innocence which in turn contributes to the making of better adults, but it's still just kind of a drag that this is part of our human experience.
Nonetheless, Max actually seems like he's gone through something of a transformation by the end of the movie, and it's a testament to both the script and to young actor Max Records (yes, he shares a first name with our protagonist) that by the last scene of the movie we really do seem to see a bit of wisdom on Max's face.
I've loved this book since I was a little kid. It really was my favorite childhood book, and I've always related to Max (I think probably because he was also an energetic but imaginative kid who would retreat into his own mind when he couldn't find a way to make things work in the real world. Also, I always liked the drawings of the Things). I used to make my parents read this book to me all the time, and I read it countless times myself. Although the movie is different than the book in some ways, I think that it's very much in the same spirit. I'm really thrilled that Jonze made such a great movie out of something that I already loved so much.

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