Where The Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)
We were kings of the world once, tireless and virtually unstoppable forces, selfish little creatures who were incessantly expecting that the rest of the world have the same enthusiasm for exactly the same things as us. When that expectation is not met, we burst with the same energy until we are fully consumed by the fiery wrath that we have created out of nothingness. Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are, with its less than 400 words and memorable illustrations about Max, a mischievous boy who was sent to his room without his supper and eventually sailed his way to a land where wild things dwell, is, although deceptively simple, an accurate mirror of that inherent wild thing that we all had when we were younger. The book's popularity among the youngsters stems from how fluently and delightfully Sendak was able to communicate what children will never be able to successfully communicate to their parents. The book's popularity among the grown-ups stems from how the book is more mature than it looks and reads, that beneath the wondrous sudden flight to the world of the wild things of short-tempered Max is an apt document on childhood angst.
Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers understandably expand Sendak's story, giving Max (a Max Records) an ample-enough back-story (youngest child of a hard-working single mother (played beautifully by Catherine Keener)), creating specific personalities to the wild things (Carol (voiced endearingly by James Gandolfini), who is probably the most affectionate yet also the most dangerous of the wild things; KW (Lauren Ambrose), a mother figure whose two new friends have disrupted whatever harmony the wild things have with themselves; Judith (Catherine O'Hara), self-confident and often obnoxious know-it-all; Ira (Forest Whitaker), Judith's too-eager-to-please admirer; Douglas (Chris Cooper), Carol's loyal wing-man; Alexander (Paul Dano), the group's token non-entity; and a mysteriously imposing Bull-like wild thing), and crafting a not-so-elaborate plot about Max keeping out all the sadness from the group of wild things. Sadness, more than anger and fury, is the most pronounced emotion in this adaptation. The emotion is effortlessly conveyed by Jonze, whose choice in hues (autumnal golds and yellows during the daytime and wintertime black and grays at night; all beautifully shot by cinematographer Lance Acord), humor (far more dry than slapstick), and design (the computer generated faces of the wild things are the saddest things I've ever seen) are directed to enunciate childhood melancholy, more than anything else.
Jonze's film obviously lacks the playfulness and energy of Sendak's book (unbothered by the need to characterize Max as anything more than an impossibly vigorous and volatile kid, the book forgoes being stalled by needless melodrama, allowing the narrative to satisfyingly breeze within a matter of minutes). Even the wild rumpus, an isolated moment of unadulterated joy in a film full of childhood dolor where all the characters, even the usually discordant wild things, are finally in agreement to just enjoy in their unified chaos, lacks the charming succinctness of Sendak's wordless panels, where the illustrations (Max and the wild things dancing under the full moon; Max riding on top of one of the wild things while the rest follow in merriment; Max and the wild things swaying from tree branch to tree branch), are by themselves apt expressions of the joy of freedom from parents, chores, and all those other things that restrict children from happiness. It does not need the upbeat melodies of Karen O., or the kinetic cinematography, or the polished editing (although I must admit, the technical details of the film are all superb) to relay something as simple and pure as bliss.
Jonze never meant his version of Where The Wild Things Are to be simple or pure. The emotions that Jonze manages to explore are much more complicated and also much more infuriating than it first seems. The film feels more like a very personal reflection on the pains of growing up than a mere adaptation of a very popular children's book. Jonze handles the story with an understandable restraint, more careful in accurately capturing the memory of the joys and disappointments of childhood than sufficiently pleasing a viable market group. There is a tenderness, a beautiful fragility to the film that is difficult to ignore. It is as if everything that is happening in the film, from the igloo that he built to the peace among the wild things, are on the verge of breaking. And things do break, along with people and fantasies; and when they break, the effects are tremendous: earth-shattering realizations that we are not kings of the world, that we are not tireless and unstoppable forces, that we are weak. There is nothing sadder for a child than that.
There were some buildings... There were these really tall buildings, and they could walk. Then there were some vampires. And one of the vampires bit the tallest building, and his fangs broke off. Then all his other teeth fell out. Then he started crying. And then, all the other vampires said, 'Why are you crying? Weren't those just your baby teeth?' And he said, 'No. Those were my grown up teeth.' And the vampires knew he couldn't be a vampire anymore, so they left him. The end. --- Max
Holed up under his mother's desk while playing with her toes in an attempt to steal her attention from work, Max makes up the story upon his mother's prodding. It's a gorgeously written and directed scene, one that immediately grants you a sizable look into Max's loneliness: how he is needy for his mother's attention; how creativity and imagination has become an outlet for his frustrations; and how his mother, knowing fully well of her limitations, can make use of that for her own sanity. The story Max crafted foreshadows his impending maturity. Told with the same deceptive simplicity of Sendak's book, the story is at first, childish and illogical, but as it settles, it offers an unassuming wisdom about leaving childhood, about how growing up is much more melancholic than it really is, as it dictates separation from the guiltless pleasures of childhood. Flash-forward to the film's end (which I believe is an improvement over Sendak's last panel wherein we see Max return to his room finding out that there is supper prepared for him), where Max eats his supper. He stares at his mother, sleeping out of exhaustion and worry on the other side of the dinner table. Jonze cuts back to Max's face: contented, happy, wiser, and surrendering to the fact that he is not the world and his mother can only do so much. His teeth have fallen off. He is a vampire no more.