Sunday, October 18, 2009

A boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king

I loved Where the Wild Things Are. It was my favorite book as a child. Sendak, along with HA Rey, Richard Scarry and a little-known fellow named Charles Schultz were my earliest artistic muses. I spent hours and hours copying their works, trying to unlock their styles and create my own curious monkey, Busy Busy World, Wild Things island, and Peanuts Gang.

I've written extensively about how I feel about movie adaptations of beloved books. And though I approach any movie adaptation of a beloved book with trepidation, I stand by what I said back in July: "No matter how far afield a two hour Where the Wild Things Are movie takes a 48-page children's book, the impact that this seminal book had on my life won't be undone."

But this is Where the Wild Things Are.

A couple of years ago, I heard a great interview with Maurice Sendak. He mentioned all the attempts to get this book onto the screen that ultimately failed. Even John Lassiter of Pixar fame did a test version for Disney and they couldn't make it work. At forty-eight pages, but only nine sentences, Sendak left a lot of silence for us to interpret the book for ourselves. And the interpretations have been diverse.

There have been many who thought it inappropriate for children, that it somehow condoned acting-up and being a wild thing. Sendak was amused by this interpretation. Most people don't get that the story this book tells - mostly in pantomime - is that even after this kid has been a little monster throughout the entire book, his mom brought him dinner anyway. Even though moms yell and send them to their room and might even get mad and punish, etcetera. Sendak thought it was an important lesson for children that yes they need to behave, but even when they're at their worst, their moms still love them. At the end they're still a family.

The movie is made by a man who "got it" and written by someone else who "got it", the incomparable Dave Eggars. It holds tightly to Sendak's themes. It doesn't change Max. It doesn't change the Wild Things. It doesn't water down the raw intensity of what it is to be a boy at a certain time in life.  It fleshes out Sendak's pantomime. It keeps the dangerous edge that the book had, this little boy pretending to be a wolf, pretending to be a king.
If you've read the book I feel that I cannot really spoil this movie for you. But SPOILER ALERT nonetheless because there are details below.
Spike Jonez gave the movie a modernist, hyper-real look that's hard to describe. There's a documentary air about it, with lot of handheld-cameras. The lighting is realistic, not glossy. Natural lighting without the Hollywood gloss. Jim Henson's creature workshop built the Wild Things, so they're on set and the boy is obviously interacting with physical specimens. The CG special effects are constrained to the faces and some of the super-human jumps and the like. They remain supportive of the story rather than overpowering them.

Max is a little monster, but he's really just a little boy looking for control over something. Anything.

His sojourn among the Wild Things has a vision quest feel to it. He's journeying inward and there is danger there, his hold on them as their king is tenuous at all times and you feel it. Every scene reflects his inner chaos and his relations with his family. Each Wild Thing is a facet of the boy's personality with the most dangerous and mercurial of the lot, Carol, masterfully brought to life by the actor in the suit (as are all the monsters) and the voice of James Gandolfini. Underlining the metaphor is that Max holds sway over the wild things by his fingernails. He can guide them, he can cajol them, he can sometimes get therm to expend their efforts in creative and wonderful ways, but he ultimately only controls them by the barest margin. At all times there's the threat that he'll lose control and they'll consume him.

Jonez brings the sense and sensibilities of a real kid. Throughout the movie you can feel Sendak moving behind the scenes. This movie is the book and it's not. It's everything the book was, plus. It's ultimately a tale of a kid who lives mostly inside his head, with few friends and an older sister who is taking the first steps into adulthood, down a path that young Max isn't ready to follow. She is leaving behind a younger brother who is feeling the sundering of what you get the impression was a close relationship at some point, lost playmates spinning apart in a family that's spinning apart in the wake of the loss of his father.

But Jonez lets you infer a lot from very little and I found it very artfully done. The parts of the movie that take place outside Max's external world are few and just enough to let you see the glory and tragedy of being a little boy. Max Record, the boy who plays Max is fantastic. He carries off the role of a boy who simultaneously hates what's happening to him and around him and hates his lack of control over himself and the events that shape him. His beleaguered mother is brought to life in few short scenes and artfully so. A woman trying to raise two kids, hold down a job and find a life and happiness for herself.

In the contractual terms of any vision quest, there is self-awareness dawning slowly throughout the movie. Max grows up a little, realizes the tightrope he walks, but not all things can be resolved. Not every side of him will suffer the bit and bridle. And Max attains some understanding of himself, of his family, of his creativity, of his ability or lack thereof to contain and control his monsters. And in the end he has to get in his little boat and come back. Mom gives him a hot meal and they are a family, Wild Things and all.

Is this a kid's movie or a movie about a kid? I don't know. I don't have a kid. The child Scottie would love this movie, though. He wouldn't catch all the undercurrents or the metaphors, but it's the right kind of scary and the good kind of dark to trip the same triggers that Labyrinth found when I was my nephews' age. Kids movies don't have to be happy. The best among them have multiple threads that give the kids something and their parents something and then the kids something to come back to and find when they see them again with their kids. I think Where the Wild Things Are aspires to the latter realm. And it's not for me to say whether or not it attains it. But as a boy who has been a wolf, a king and a wild thing, I loved it for it similarities to the book as well as its differences.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).