21 December, 2009Issue 10.6Film & TVThe Arts

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Monsters in Therapy

Jason Kim

foerSpike Jonze
Where the Wild Things Are
Warner Bros., 2009
101 minutes

Comprised of only 10 sentences embedded in 37 pages of lush illustrations, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are has been a staple in American children’s literature since its publication in 1963. It isn’t difficult to see why. With its sparse text (388 words in total), the book invites its readers to discover—and craft—a narrative that is all their own. The story surfaces from your imagination, and that’s quite a marvelous thing, especially when you’re nine years old.

Directed by Spike Jonze, who penned the script with Dave Eggers, the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are takes cues from the book’s openly interpretive quality. The movie follows Max, a nine-year-old boy who runs away from home to an island occupied by big furry creatures. Bookended by scenes in the real world, the bulk of Where the Wild Things Are takes place in Max’s imagined universe, a place where he is free to roam about without his mother (Catherine Keener) or cold teenage sister (Pepita Emmerichs). A place sprung up from a child’s imagination—sounds like a good set up.

Except, the world that Jonze and Eggers create for Max is nothing short of lackluster. The chief problem of the film lies with the eponymous wild things, who are as emotionally complex as the cast of Friends and far less entertaining. There’s Carol (James Gandolfini), the ringleader of the group, who has major jealousy issues; KW (Lauren Ambrose), the cause of said issues; and Ira (Catherine O’Hara), who’s testy for no good reason. Alexander (Paul Dano) and Douglas (Chris Cooper), two duds who don’t say much of anything, round out the dull, flat cast. This is a disappointing bunch, particularly for Jonze, who has a track record of bringing intriguing, quirky characters to life in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Both films, written by cerebral screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, present to us eccentric, implausible worlds while grounding the narrative with characters whose journeys we want to follow.

By contrast, in Where the Wild Things Are, we find the emotional content in the environment. The movie’s most exhilarating and captivating sequence finds Max and the monsters tearing through the forest, jumping over rocks, and bumping into trees at breakneck speed. These broken trees’ limbs say more about the fractured state of Max’s mind than any living character. The wildness of Max’s world—its cliffs, jagged rocks, shattered trees—remind us that imagination can soar to dark and dangerous places even when it wants to escape from the real world. Jonze captures this sense brilliantly, creating an environment that is at once earthly and otherworldly.

But the film fails to go any deeper than that, and what’s missing at the end of Where the Wild Things Are is a sense of true danger, a real conflict. Midway through, the film plunges into dramatic limbo, as Max and the gentle monsters set off to build their own version of Utopia, a big fort-like complex that threatens to cut out people’s brains, dare they enter without permission. But, of course, no one enters. The fort doesn’t even get finished. Eventually, the wild things figure out that Max is not really a king. Some harsh—but not too harsh—words get exchanged between Carol and Max. Carol intimates that he might eat Max, maybe. Max runs off, stumbles into KW, and proceeds to hide inside her belly. Out of semi-mortal danger and no longer enchanted by this world, Max decides it’s time to go. During the departure, Carol returns, howling at Max to show his remorse as Max sets sail, back to reality.

It’s easy to get Freudian about Where the Wild Things Are. After all, almost every episode on the island tends to correspond in one way or another to Max’s real world: a snowball fight is replicated as a dirt ball fight, forts are constructed, a tale about the dying sun is retold. And arguably, the wild things themselves could be read as projections of Max’s psyche. But, as long as the narrative is concerned, there are hardly any dramatic consequences—no real revelations, lessons learned. In psychotherapy terms, there are no “breakthroughs”. Take, for example, how nothing of significance arises from Max’s relationship with Carol, or with any of the other creatures for that matter. The same is also true with the movie’s main events, such as the dirt ball fight. The playful violence has no real impact on the story: it does not further the plot, deepen conflict, or create an obstacle. The sequence exists in a narrative vacuum.

Because Max never faces any real conflict, it is difficult for him to develop into a relatable character. And, by corollary, it is difficult for us to care about Max. There’s one truly moving scene in the movie, and it takes place in the real world. When Max returns home, his mother, exhausted from worry and anxiety, grips her son tightly, holding onto him in as hard as she can. She is relieved, happy, and grateful to see him. Finally, a real emotion.

Perhaps there’s a deep significance of Where the Wild Things Are; perhaps we’re meant to wade in the gentle, melancholy waves of the movie and discover something primal and true about childhood as it reflects on adulthood. Certainly, there is a case to be made for subtlety in filmmaking, and Jonze, who has shown tremendous flair with offbeat materials, especially Being John Malkovich, is reaching here for Seurat’s brush, not van Gogh’s. But art-lovers don’t go to museums anticipating only sketchbooks, and fans don’t attend football games expecting the players to stand gently still, hoping that the ball will move about on its own.

On the way out of the movie, an older gentleman remarked to his friend that Where the Wild Things Are felt like your average second therapy session. You hash out some problems, touch lightly on some deeper issues, and ding dong, it’s time to go. That man seems to have liked this feeling very much. Sadly, viewers expecting something beyond performative therapy will leave the theatre yearning to have felt more, and cared more. And besides, if it’s talkative monsters we’re after, most of us could buy a ticket to our family reunion.

Jason Kim received a degree in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. He has worked at The New Yorker and as a writer in film and television. He lives in Brooklyn.