Ten-sentence children’s book turned into a 101-minute film with varying degrees of success
written by Jack Kentala
Consider the polar ends of the spectrum: Where The Wild Things Are, mostly-beloved picture book by an ageset now in their 20s and 30s; a hipster-approved trailer accompanied by an unheard version of The Arcade Fire’s classic “Wake Up,” and an OST by hipster-approved Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; a film heavily advertised on adult-oriented outlets like Pitchfork and The AV Club; coming from solid director Spike Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord; promised as “dark” despite a PG rating (which I give benefit-doubt to, since 2001: A Space Odyssey is rated goddamn G); in stark contrast to, at the 12:30 p.m. showing on opening day, myself being the only adult viewer without (multiple/loud) children.
So it’s not a stretch to figure that the money behind Where The Wild Things Are, during its oft-delayed growing pains (originally slated for May 2008), had a hard time finding an audience. And, like many casualties of this dilemma, it doesn’t fully satisfy either camp.
The film has a strong start that caters to probably the largest amount of the audience. We follow Max terrorizing his dog and building an igloo across the street, followed not long thereafter by getting into a snowball fight with his older sister’s friends who, in the process, destroy said igloo. That sort of madcap, it’s-fun-until-someone-gets-hurt mentality has, for any bipedal human who lives in a snow-producing climate, has happened to anyone.
What follows are the inciting incidents from the trailer, which, unfortunately, don’t have much more bulk than the trailer. Max, again, dons his wolf suit and spies on his mom and her boyfriend before one night’s dinner. A brief standoff occurs, then Max books out of the house and to a conveniently/mysteriously-docked boat that leads off into the land of the Wild Things.
This is where things start to get really hazy. When Max comes upon the Wild Things for the first time, there’s really no awe or mystery; it’s as if the enormous Wild Things were just human-sized and, well, human (which is sort of the point, I concede), and then a lot of talking ensues before Max is rather suddenly anointed King.
What then happens is also distilled quite concisely in the trailers: a lot of running, a lot of random in-the-forest mayhem, and, above all, a suspicious lack of anyone needing food throughout the several “days” spent in the land of the Wild Things; a land that consists mostly of a Wooded Area, a Rocky Area, and a Desert Area.
There, the human-named characters fit nicely into pretty broad stereotypes. With all the mayhem aside, this is where the movie loses it way. It completes loses all forward thrust and, aside from Max’s plans to build a fort of some kind, there’s nothing that propels the narrative. It just idles along as the runtime lengthens. And at the end, it’s hard to tell if the story of the Wild Things – who are just a sad and lonely and, by extension, semi-pathetic race of creatures marooned on an island – is still rooted in sheer fantasy and imagination, or if it’s trying to bridge an allegory with Max’s home life.
It never becomes fully clear, and all of a sudden Max leaves without really giving anyone hope or joy or any sort of lesson. They mutually howl goodbye, and that’s it. Furthermore, Max spends a few days at sea going home, and some uptempo music is tossed in as though to trick us into thinking he actually accomplished something in the land of the Wild Things.
Max gets home, his mom makes him dinner, and that’s it. True to the extremely-short source book, sure, but as glad as I am that we’re spared the melodrama of a too-talky denouement, I wanted something in the ways of a denouement. That is, given that the film starts so strong in the Real World that I hoped it would end strong in said Real World.
Speculation abounds what Spike Jonze really wanted with this. IMDb trivia mentions that Jonze had a fully-finished version that the studio didn’t think was family-friendly enough, and if there’s any justice, that version will end up on DVD at some point. The studio seemed so repulsed that they actually considered reshooting the entire movie for $75 million. But that’s a different story; one we might never know unless we between-the-lines-read every Jonze publicity interview. And after an underwhelming 101 minute film, who has time for that?