Thursday, March 31, 2011

Where the Wild Things Are

I’m not gonna lie to you.  My entire motivation for doing this one at this time is because the book is short.  I was gonna do a longer book, Beezus and Ramona, but I realized after reading the entire thing and then watching the movie, Ramona and Beezus, that the movie was not based on the book I read, but on other books in the series.  Well, maybe I’ll do those another time.  Where the Wild Things Are is still a book I had on my list of to-do’s though, so I’m not cheating.  …Much.

Where the Wild Things Are was written by Maurice Sendak and published by Harper Trophy (now HarperCollins) in 1963.  The story is very short and sweet with very beautifully illustrated pictures that in addition to telling half the story (it’s a picture book, ya know) won the Caldecott Medal in 1964.  That’s like a Pulitzer, but for picture book art.  Because the story is so simple, I really can’t do too much of a synopsis of it without telling the whole story.  So sorry for spoiling the 37 page book (16 of which are just pictures).

Max is in a funny mood the night he wears his wolf suit.  Maybe there’s a full moon or something.  He causes all kinds of trouble, chases the dog around with a fork like he’s gonna eat the poor thing, and when his mom points out that he’s being a nuisance he says he’ll eat her up.  So she sends him to his room without supper.   
Now, the book is ambiguous as to how a forest grows in his room.  Is Max imagining the whole thing?  Did he fall asleep and dream it?  Is it some sort of strange full moon magic?  I guess that’s left up to the reader.  But soon Max makes his way through the forest, across an ocean, and to the island where the Wild Things are (get it?).  The Wild Things try to scare him, but he wins a staring contest or something and they make him their king.  So they have loads of fun hopping and climbing and generally being wild, until Max sends them to bed without any dinner.  But he feels lonely, so retires from being a ruler and goes back across the ocean and the forest and back to his room where dinner is waiting for him, still hot.

And that’s it.  Not a whole heck of a lot to the story; even with the pictures there’s not much more that can be turned into a movie.  But, I suppose if it can be adapted to an opera, then might as well give a movie a chance.  Yeah, there’s an opera.  In the 80’s Maurice Sendak actually worked with composer Oliver Knussen to write an opera based on his book.  According to the synopsis on Wikipedia, it followed the book pretty faithfully, focusing on the wild rumpus that is the first order/coronation ceremony of King Max, and I reckon that opened itself up to plenty of singing and dancing and stuff that operas are all about.

Anyway, the movie was directed by Spike Jonze in 2009.  Wait.  Spike Jonze?  The same Spike Jonze that directed Being John Malcovich and Adaptation?  Uh huh.  A kids’ book fits right into that repertoire doesn’t it?  It had the some of the same tasks ahead of it that Grinch did: it needed to develop back stories and deeper character development and more story arcs to make a movie that was more than 20 minutes long and worth seeing.

The movie opens with Max being generally a monster.  He growls at everyone and does the chasing the dog with a fork thing.  He has a big sister in the movie, although there is no mention of or against siblings in the book, so I suppose artistic license?  Anyway, it doesn’t matter since she is never seen, mentioned, or alluded to after the first two scenes.  The main family member focus is on Max’s relationship with his mom (played by Maxine from Being John Malcovich), who for the most part is very kind and sympathetic toward Max.  
At some point about ten or so minutes in, I start to think that movie Max may be emotionally disturbed.  When his sister tells him to go play with his friends, he goes and orders a fence around, and kicks it when it “talks back” to him.  After her friends smash his igloo and she exits stage left for the rest of the movie, he throws a tantrum in her bedroom, breaking her stuff and screaming.  Why is this kid acting like this?  A mere trouble maker or overactive imagination isn’t this insane.  We never really get an explanation.  Oh, his sister doesn’t listen to him and his mom is dating someone.  That’s it?  So, is that why he bites his mom?  Oh, he threatens to eat her up first, like he did in the book, but then he takes a big ol’ bite out of her shoulder before running away into the woods.  This kid is not stable.

The sun's gonna blow! Take cover!
Perhaps it’s his teacher’s fault.  I say this because the one day we see him in school, we see his teacher giving a lecture about the sun (is a mass of incandescent gas… sorry.)  They and we are treated to a five minute detailed explanation about how someday the sun will die and all the life on Earth will die with it.  Sure, it’s probably true, but seriously, a whole lecture to fourth graders about it?  Doncha think they’re a little young for doomsday prophesies?  Just a side note, I have a beef with the classroom set up.  Hey, movie directors of today, I got an FYI for you.  Elementary school classrooms are not set up in rows with the teacher lecturing at the front any more.  Maybe high school might be, but it’s not a functional learning environment for grade school.  Ok, off my soapbox.

So Max runs into the woods, which leads to the ocean, where he climbs on a boat and sails to the island of the Wild Things.  Same as the book, except that he ran away from home rather than be sent to his room with no supper.  There is more confusion as to whether the woods and ocean and island and Wild Things are real, magic, or imagined, although we can be reasonably assured he didn’t dream it.  Sure, as adults we can rationalize that it’s all in Max’s head, but I can see it being at least a little confusing to a kid.  On the island he subdues the Wild Things not by a magic trick that he would imagine himself to be able to perform, but by lying to them about being a king and having powers that could blow up their heads.  In fact, a lot of the things King Max says in this movie are overly violent, adding to my whole emotionally disturbed theory. 

The Wild Things are each given a name and a personality that expresses a certain psyche of Max’s mind.  The striped one named Carol is his anger id, KW sort of reflects his innocent nice kid who is frustrated and a bit ashamed of his anger, the goat looking one Alex is his feeling of being invisible, and so on.  They elect Max as their king because he’s been king of the Vikings before, proving that even in a kid’s imagination experience is everything when trying to get a job.  I didn’t really have too much to say about Max’s time as King of the Wild Things since in the book that part is told almost exclusively through the pictures.  Who am I to say this stuff didn’t happen?

There are a lot of “I’ll eat you up” connections, although I don’t think it’s too overdone.  Just that it’s a lot more literal.  First, Max bites his mom, then the Wild Things greet him with a conversation about if they should eat him, then Carol threatens to eat him when he finds out Max lied about being a Viking king.  The symbolic eating is replaced by literal eating, and it made the movie scary for many kids who went to see it in the theaters and spurring critics to advise against taking young children to see the movie.

I guess I kind of agree.  It is a scary movie, and if a young child sees it in the mindset that it’s like the book, that kid will be scared to death by the Carol’s anger toward KW and eventually Max.  As a movie in general, it’s not bad, but there are so many ambiguous or arbitrary scenes that I don’t know if it could be called a good movie either.  The cinematography’s pretty good, though, so that parallels to the book being visually awesome.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him "WILD THING!" and Max said "I'LL EAT YOU UP!" so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

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