After work on Friday, I took my kids to Where the Wild Things Are. I’d read effusive reviews, like the one from New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, who wrote, “Jonze has made a work of art that stands up to its source and, in some instances, surpasses it.” I’d read pans like the one from Paste’s Andy Beta, who wrote, “we find ourselves burdened with mopey, emotionally needy, and temper tantrum-prone creatures, both human and monstrous.” It’s interesting that of the 36 reviews on Metacritic today, a dozen are 50 or below and a dozen are 88 and above.
I think a lot all of the divisiveness stems from expectations. It’s not just that the film isn’t really geared towards kids—mine fidgeted throughout. It’s the complete absence of the feeling the trailer gave us—one long wild rumpus coming to life to Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up.” That sense of triumph and whimsy is the exact opposite of the actual movie. That song doesn’t appear in the film because there’s nowhere it would have fit. It’s an angry, frustrated angst-filled movie because it’s a angry, frustrated, angst-filled book. The Wild Things are all parts of Max—Max likes being wild, but he doesn’t like being out of control. He can be mopey. He can feel invisible. He can create, and he can destroy. He’s looking at himself the way he thinks others look at him after he wrecks his sister’s room and bites his mom. Jonze masterfully brings all of the inner turmoil of Max’s childhood to life through the land of the wild things.
And Maurice Sendek’s creatures do make a glorious jump onto the screen. They have names now! And they’re every bit as wild as we all imagined. There’s a violence always barely in check, and when it finally becomes unleashed it’s shocking and permanent. In the book, you sense Max leaves the island for the unconditional love that’s waiting for him at home. In the movie, that love is still waiting, but Max also leaves because the turmoil is too much.
And there’s the crux. The land of the wild things isn’t really a fun place. The pockets of whimsy are few and were all better captured in the preview. Jonze has given us a film that is way more true to the book than I ever could have guessed possible, but melancholy and recklessness is resolved in 10 minutes when I read the book to my children. The film could have used some Arcade Fire.