Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: My Take On the Film

I saw the "Where the Wild Things Are" film today, and it was... ___________. I mean, how do you really fill in that blank? I think it's actually a great thing, a testament to the filmmakers, that I can't leap in and say, "it was fantastic" or "it was scary" or "it was different" or weird or depressing or enlightening, etc, etc. It wasn't exactly how I'd imagined it, but as I was trying to explain to my mystified father, that was a lot of the appeal of the original book: it's a spare story, without a whole lot of words, and as a result a lot of the story takes place beyond the edges of the page, in the imagination of the reader. That's one of the strengths of the movie, that it goes in there and it fills in some of the pieces, but obviously those aren't going to match everything I've carried around inside my head since I was five years old and first read it.

This is a film about being a child. Max is, of course, the central child, but I would argue that the Wild Things are more children than he is: Carol's frustrations, fears, and angry outbursts, Alexander feeling like no one ever hears him, all of the Wild Things in their quest for approval or attention - they are a (literally) super-sized depiction of the same feelings and situations Max faces. When the dirt fight dissolves into a petty argument, hurt feelings, and taking sides, I was reminded of many a similar playground battle. Some people in reviews have slammed the film as being too "depressing," but I think it's just a problem of preconceived notions. Yes, the Wild Things in the book seem to have a jolly good time on their rumpus, but on the whole they are needy creatures who latch on instantly to this new authority figure, and who are beside themselves with grief when he wants to leave (to the point that "we'll eat you up, we love you so"). Jonze and Eggers took the implied sadness (and sadness is something a child is capable of feeling quite strongly) and brought it to full fruition on screen.

But it's not only this emotional aspect that rings true to what it's like to be a kid. Even elements of the plot seem like they came from the mind of a child: a scene in which Max crawls (whole and unharmed) into KW's stomach to hide from an enraged Carol, only to find a live raccoon inside busy snacking on something and as happy as can be. Or how KW's new friends are two owls named Bob and Ted who speak in hoots that everyone seems to understand except Max and Carol. Or even the slightly disturbing sight of Carol ripping off Alexander's arm in the midst of an argument, only to have Alexander replace it in a later shot with a stick (as weird as it sounds, this is definitely the kind of thing a kid would think up!). It doesn't make sense logically, but it makes sense emotionally, which is a lot of how we perceive the world as a child.

The other thing I loved about this movie is how DANGEROUS it is. The creative urge is to build things, and Max and Co. do plenty of this, but they also have soooooo much fun knocking things down and tearing things up. When Max first meets the Wild Things, Carol is in the process of ripping their huts into shreds in the midst of an angry tantrum. There are other scenes that involve taking hunks out of trees or knocking them down completely, dancing in the wreckage, glorying in the destruction. Someone gets their arm ripped off. Max's crown and scepter are dug up from a pile of the bones of former "kings". Dirt battles and wild rumpuses and sleeping in one giant pile (when you're the tiny one among huge monsters) - Max is always on the edge of real peril. He gets dirty, hurt, tired, and often risks his life. Even a seemingly innocent scene where he stands up on a cliff top overlooking his "kingdom" nearly becomes a disaster when a Wild Thing rushes up behind him almost upsetting his balance and sending him hurtling over the edge.

And far from being disturbing, I thought: HOW WONDERFUL. There is a beautiful and astounding line where Carol is trying to express his frustration to Max and says, "Do you know how it feels when you keep losing your teeth, and you notice them getting farther apart, until they all fall out and you just don't have teeth anymore?" I think this is what happens to us when we grow up: our imaginations, our minds, lose their "teeth," lose that danger, that edge. We stop thinking of the world as a big and scary place; we lose that sense of danger and wonder little by little until it's completely gone. If you think about it, we really don't have to "lose our teeth"; we just let it happen. If we want, we can fight for them, keep a little sharpness in our bite.

Parents who try to ban books are the sort of people who think children need to be shielded or protected from the horrors of the world, but what this film (and the book that inspired it) shows more than anything is that there is a landscape of terror, violence, anger, sadness, wonder, beauty, and joy inside each child. You can't censor your children's nightmares; you can't take a child's imagination off the shelf. Kids feel real feelings and struggle with real issues and are exposed to real dangers and unsettling situations. Rather than being the kind of person who would take this away - who would hide the boat or burn the wolf suit or send Max to a shrink to squelch his "unhealthy fantasies" - I hope more and more people will choose to be like Max's mom. Maybe you can't shield your child from everything, but you can always be there with huge hug and warm meal at the end of the day.

So in conclusion, I thought "Wild Things" was ___________. It's too big for pages, too big for screens, too big for words. It is a story that will always exist outside the edges of things, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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