Created: November 21, 2020, 10:44 pm
Written by Ryan Speck
I think many of us grew up on "Where The Wild Things Are". It's the fairly simple story of an annoying child, sent to bed without supper, whose bedroom turns into a magical world that he travels, eventually meeting the titular "wild things", monsters of various shapes and configurations. Eventually he gets lonely and returns "home", finding dinner awaiting him. Not very complex and exceptionally light on words. It lets the imagery do the talking and that's why Maurice Sendak gets so much credit, having created colorful imagery with an entirely singular design. When something mimics the style of "Where The Wild Things Are", it is immediately recognizable somehow. To an entire generation, this 40-page picture book is ingrained in their consciousness, along with images of "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood".
You'd think that when it came to a movie adaptation, Spike Jonze might seem like an apt creative voice to translate the slim narrative into a colorful and exciting film. He has experience with whimsy, even if much of his adult film work is more dark and serious in nature. Surely he could take a good script from an accomplished writer and use his visual flair to bring the book's images to life...
No. Where The Wild Things Are is a dire abortion of a film. Many people seem to like it, but I have nothing but contempt for those people. It is humorless, joyless, colorless, overemotional, dull, screeching, pointless, monotonous, confused, misguided, bereft of character, a poor and pale imitation of the source material, making every moment and every character a figure only deserving of scorn. Both Jonze and his co-writer, Dave Eggers, should be held personally responsible for wasting my fucking time. They managed to take a storied and beloved children's favorite (that I don't even particularly care about) and make something so loathsome from it that it's hard to completely grasp.
Sure, it was a slim volume to begin with and definitely needed padding out, but - from the outset - the tone of the movie is completely wrong. This movie is the fever dream of some PTSD-damaged mind, awash in the deepest depression, helplessness, and hopelessness ever set to film. It felt like the work of someone trying to metaphorically express their personal abuse, not a movie ostensibly (and explicitly) for children.
I was sold on watching this movie by seeing the effects that they used to create the look of Sendak's monsters on film. And it is an often-successful technique. They used actors in mascot costumes to physically play the roles and then digitally added in their animated faces later, mostly seamlessly, though it's a nine-year-old film and you can often see "CGI face" in close-ups. From a distance, it works well and is the only reason this film gets anything above the lowest possible rating.
I can't remember the last time I so actively hated a film. I had to watch it in bits. Its hour and forty minute runtime feels substantially longer. I started it months ago and had to stop it multiple times during the initial viewing, finally leaving it with 20 or so minutes left until today. The only thing that got me to finish it at all was because of the fact that I could then write about it now.
This Wild Things begins with a much-older Max than the naughty, irritating child in the book. Can you imagine a sixth or seventh grader in a footy-pajamas wolf costume getting sent to his room without supper? Well, I guess not, so they just turned him into some sort of deranged, almost-autistic child with anger issues relating to his parents' divorce. His teenage sister doesn't pay attention to him, caring more about her friends - something both reasonable and expected, hard to even imagine an actual child of his age being such a whiny bitch about; his mother is busy trying to be a single parent, deal with her horrible child, and date a reasonably nice guy. (I mean, she's dating Mark Ruffalo. He could be playing a serial killer and you still couldn't hate him. Who is going to be jealous and intimidated by Ruffalo?) Max acts like a fucking insane person. He quickly goes from petty and childish to a destructive terror. I don't know if this is because the filmmakers don't have kids and, like most people with kids don't, they have no fucking clue what children are actually like at any particular age. Three, five, twelve? It's all the same, right? He wrecks the shit out of everything, acts worse than any child you've probably seen in reality (because he's sad and traumatized, you see), and if you walk away from the first 15 minutes of the movie not wanting to see him die, then you're the problem.
Now, miscreant Max in the book is sent to his room without supper and his imagination leads to an escape to another world where his behavior is acceptable, if not desirable. He is made king because of his monstrous nature. But eventually he realizes he doesn't want to live that way and misses his family, returning from his imaginary world.
Movie Max literally runs away from home (in his "crazy homeless person" wolf suit), running into the street, cutting down alleyways, eventually finds a rowboat, and heads out to sea, reaching a distant island full of monsters. Gone is the simple and elegant metaphor, all for this horseshit.
He arrives at the island, as you'd expect; it's night and shit is on fire, like you don't expect in a kid's film; he meets the monsters, who are just pointlessly wrecking shit, like he did, or being weird, neurotic surrogates for famous actors they got to voice the cast even though it's not really appropriate; he is genuinely menaced by the creatures before showing spine for some unknown reason and endlessly lying about what he can do and how important he is. Now the movie surrogate for your child to relate to isn't just a naughty kid that goes on an internal journey and comes back regretting his actions; now he's a hugely destructive shitheel who tries to ruin his mother's life, runs away from home, and lies continuously. Just so we can get ahead of this, I'll say that the movie ends with nothing being learned and the character not really changing in any meaningful way.
Max lies about being a king from another land and is made the king of the wild things. He's not just finding a society that physically represents how he feels, where they recognize his kinship with them and name him king. No, he lies and bluffs his way into it. This is followed by what feels like four hours of these monsters you recognize visually from your childhood talking like normal-ass boring people, constantly nagging and fighting with each other, and generally just killing any desire to see what happens next. The film has many accomplished actors in it, but they're not actors well-known for their voice work. And they definitely don't create any character for the monsters. The monsters are just the same types of people Max left behind, just more boring, argumentative, and, frankly, stupid.
Arriving at night and being lit by fires was already a bleak and more "horror movie" choice for the monster introductions, but it's just the beginning of the depressing, awful palette that Jonze is about to serve us from for the rest of the film. Sendak may have colored his monsters largely in brown and grays, but his background scenery was green, red, blue, yellow, and white. The wild things had touches of red, orange, and yellow in them. The island was a verdant jungle. This film is brown and gray. Almost exclusively. Everything is made of wood and sticks. Everything is covered in dirt, including the wild things. The scenery is barren forests and deserts. There is no color to be seen at all. It's the visual equivalent of a bad early-'00s shooter, an endless array of fecal shades, sepia tones, and ashen vistas. It is abhorrent to watch, no matter how much art was put into the look and the shots.
As much as it's colorless, it's humorless and un-fun. The characters mope and argue. Everyone is depressed. The music is fucking depressed. It's all twee indie bullshit; sad, sappy songs for sad, aging hipsters. And how did a man in his 50s become such a fucking hipster? This is the most bland, soulless, mopey hipster-ass fucking movie ever put to film. Add Zooy Deschanel and Bill Murray in a segment directed by Wes Anderson and it could only make the film less of a sad mess for disaffected beardy millenial scumbags. Eggers and Jonze have basically transcribed someone's group counseling meetings and passed it off as a children's film. All it's missing is Sal, the wild thing with a tearful monologue about how he cradled his dying squadmate Danny's body in Iraq, trying to hold together what little remained of the man's face with his bare hands as Danny croaked out his last breaths, and - oh, god - the blood, so much blood, why won't the bleeding stop, someone please help me, why won't anyone help...
Whatever they're trying to say about the self-centered trauma of childhood (particularly where it has to do with their mythical idea of divorce) is heavy-handed, stupid, and shitty. If their parents divorced and they think this is how anyone might have acted or is somehow analogous to their internalized feelings, it's not universal, it's not something most people can or should understand, and it's very much inappropriate for a movie adaptation of a book aimed mostly at four- to seven-year-olds.
I feel like I can barely remember the final part of the movie that I watched today. The movie just kind of collapses as Max convinces them to build a giant fort for him and he has grand plans for the many, absurd, and overly-childish uses he will put it to. Recrimination against Max grows, particularly with Carol, the (poorly-named) surrogate for Max's emotions on the island, who blames Max for his many problems, begins to question his obvious lies, and tries to hurt and eat Max. There are maimings. Max runs away and hides inside another monster, one representative of his fraught familial relationships. (Dear fucking Christ, how is any child supposed to understand a movie so heavily-invested in making everything a juvenile metaphorical exercise? It's not like those layers are there for further examination by adults. It's all the movie has going for it. Everything else is a fucking unwatchable atrocity that had my five-year-old turning to me every few minutes to question characters' emotions or actions because they were so unreasonable.)
Max finally leaves to go home not because he's lonely and has grown tired of being a monster; instead, he leaves because things have gotten intolerably awful with the contempt and disillusionment of the wild things and their relationships become untenably awful. He's depressed right back into reality by the anger of his emotional representative, who sort of hates him. You could say there's meaning in that, but you didn't watch the movie, did you? Nothing is well-thought out. Everything is bad. The fact that we haven't risen up as a people and strung up Jonze and Eggers shows our weakness as a species.
So, our dickhead main character heads home. He wanders back to his house, where it's still night. If you assume that he didn't really go to an island full of monsters, because you're not an idiot, then he ran away from the house for some indeterminate amount of time. Since we're assuming he did actually run away from home for some while, the fact that his mother doesn't appear worried, hasn't called the police, isn't looking for him, and is just sitting around the kitchen, sort of glad to see him when he walks in, is fucking anomalous, to say the least. Your child acts like a lunatic in front of your date to be an asshole, physically fights you to not go to their room, and bites you, and you just shrug and give an "aw, shucks, we'll be okay" half-smile, a hug, and serve up a hunk of cake big enough for four kids when he walks in? Are you fucking crazy? Fuck you. All these characters belong in hell.
And as jangly twee indie crooning moans over child and mother staring at each other in contented bemusement, it fades to black.
Fuck this movie. Fuck Spike Jonze. Fuck Dave Eggers. Fuck you if you like this garbage.
If you want to see a decent adaptation of "Where The Wild Things Are" that isn't just the cartoon of the book, watch the "Arthur" movie D.W. And The Beastly Birthday. There. I saved you and hour and forty minutes.