Given the right sort of prompting, I suspect a lot of people would tell you that one of the greatest abilities we have as humans is the ability to remember. With slightly different prompting, you’d get as many votes for our ability to forget. With the right background ideas going on in the game, you might get quite a number of people who will tell you that either one is an absolutely essential ingredient to our existence. I, on the other hand, believe greatly in the ability to forget while remembering, and I think it is this magnificent and often overlooked ability that has fueled (and will continue to fuel) the sentiment of Where the Wild Things Are.
It’s a tricky sort of thing, forgetting while remembering, but responsible for many a fine tradition of human existence – women who have more than one child, the continued existence of summer camps, and for the movie’s point, the fact that people say things like, “Ahh… I wish I could be a kid again. Nothing to do but play all day.”
The same thing is at work in people’s grandiose nostalgia for a book they remember from childhood. The 200-wordish work by Maurice Sendak is fun and bright, but my eight year-old was completely over it when he was six. For all that we may want to glorify something we treasure, it is actually without any great thematic depth or moral, and in the end Max returns home more out of boredom than as a result of any interesting lesson he learned. In point of fact, I have always rather liked reading the story to my own children specifically because it is brave enough to avoid a lesson. Max has rather a wild time, and then it’s over, hey look, someone left me food.
To say that the film is somehow a natural expansion of the original work is simply ludicrous. It is given a vastly different tone, the thematic development from start to finish is a stark contrast, and the entire theory of any natural expansion from any work far shorter than this review is already is wishful thinking at best. There is nothing, by the way, about the tone, story, or anything else within the original work which would lead one to suspect the possibility that someone gets their arm ripped off… though there are many things about the film which make it none too surprising. Put that in your children’s book and send me a memo with your sales figures.
While the film is beautiful, and filled with a kind of wonder only a small child is capable of, perhaps a testament to Spike Jonze‘s otherwise wildly overestimated abilities, the greatest trick of Where the Wild Things Are is figuring out who it’s for. A sort of sycophantic indulgence which clearly hopes to get great mileage out of the fact that saying anything negative about it is likely to make one as popular as kicking a puppy, the film is obviously far too dark (and slow) for anyone remotely in the age-range of the book, and too simplistic and heavy-handed for anyone else.
It’s greatest plus is simply its title, and the fact that you will say, “Awww… I love that book!” You’re hooked already, and nothing else is of major consequence. It has those characters, includes the word “rumpus,” and all else is meaningless. You’ll forget while remembering, and you’re off to the races.
On the other hand, what the film does well is actually the remembering while it’s remembering, even if it doesn’t particularly want you to do the same. A small child’s world, view, and worldview are rather nicely portrayed, and there are moments when a truly brilliant understanding of what it is like to find your way in this life with all the tall people around you comes through. Chiefly, the attempts at reason and logic which are attempts at mimicking that which is not understood are not only fun moments of the film, but cleverly playful and powerful roads to the movie’s main efforts thematically.
It’s hard to argue against the visual appeal, and even the somewhat “retro” styling of the wild things… in fact, it is even hard to be too harsh when it comes to the legitimately well-represented viewpoint of a small boy trying to fit in and finding that, whatever those around him might say, there are simply no hims around to take his cues from, or to join him in his fort. Indeed, it is quite good for what it is, as is the original work, whether the two resemble each other or not. But, it sure makes you understand why bedtime stories are built to last about five minutes.