Much of the critical reception for Spike Jonze’s mind-bending film, Where the Wild Things Are, centered on whether it was a film for children or about children, which was a rather strange discussion to have about a PG movie clearly aimed at children and their parents. In an age before the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Disneyfied Star Wars made it practically sport for critics to endlessly dissect children's movies, Where the Wild Things Are received a surprising amount of critical discussion when it was released.
There are several reasons why the response was so visceral: 1.) The production team was well-known, well-respected, and primarily identified with heady, thematic, adult material; 2.) There was a great deal of drama surrounding the original cut of the film being too scary for young children; 3.) The movie itself is a marvel and practically begs consideration beyond simply its merits for the younger demographics.
The movie was in production for several years, with rumors of a ballooning budget spiraling out of it like gamma rays from a black hole, but what stoked the fires of enthusiasm among film geeks was simply the pairing of Where the Wild Things Are and Spike Jonze. It was such an improbable match that on first rumor most people just assumed this movie would be brilliant and put it on their “must-see” lists. But as more stories emerged from the set (e.g. Dave Eggers, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was co-writing the script, Jonze was using 7 foot tall fuzzy suits for the Wild Things, they were filming in a remote location in Australia) it became clear that Jonze was creating something truly unusual*.
Then came the rumors that initial test-screenings of the film had proved too terrifying for younger viewers and that some aspects of the movie were going to have to be reshot and recut if Warner Bros. was going to distribute it, and also that the suits at WB were having second thoughts about the viability of the principal actor (Max Records)’s performance. While ultimately Warner Bros. fears proved unfounded, they served to delay the release date of the film and inflate even further an already bloated hype-machine. So it was that by the time Where the Wild Things Are was finally released, most of the critics and film geeks** were already primed for something truly special, perhaps even Oscar-worthy, and the film was practically guaranteed to be scrutinized more closely than perhaps a scrappy, heartfelt fantasy for children deserved to be. In short, the backlash began before the movie was even released.
Some critics claimed the film was too heady to be understood by children, while others said it was too boring to be truly appreciated by adults. All agreed that it was beautifully shot. But in their rush to place WTWTA either in the pantheon of timeless children’s movies or banish it forever into the bin of forgetfulness, most of these critics forgot to take a step back and try and meet the movie on its own terms. They forgot that sometimes the best children’s entertainment isn’t something that kids will understand the first go around.
I believe Where the Wild Things Are is a classic film that today’s children will revisit several times throughout their lives. It will be as important to future generations of grown-up children as movies like The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, or Willow are to Generation X and Y, and the precise qualities which may make it frightening or complicated to young viewers today is exactly what will make it so poignant later in their lives.
There is no doubt about it; Where the Wild Things Are is a difficult movie. It depicts raw anger, violence, familial strife, sadness, and depression all with an honesty that may seem inappropriate for younger viewers, and yet there is also happiness and friendship and elation depicted with the same zeal. It is a movie that refuses to simply be a children’s movie, or a movie about childhood, but rather straddles the line between the two, becoming a movie that is about childhood as seen through the eyes of a child.
Therefore, as some critics have protested, not very much happens. As in, you can describe the plot in one sentence: an unruly young boy travels to a distant island, meets a bunch of big, shaggy beasts, frolics with them for awhile, and then goes home. But that is the life of a child, especially a boy on the edge of adolescence. Whole days are spent building forts, tackling one another, laughing wildly, and engaging in the last vestiges of world-building imagination before the real world steps in to cure them of that naivety and faith and wonder. Where the Wild Things Are captures just such a day in the life of a 9-year-old boy, when nothing seems to happen and yet everything happens, life happens, and with each game of tag or pile-on, with every rage-filled argument that boy becomes a man, in fits and starts, one small experience at a time.
Where the Wild Things Are is a success on several levels: it was number one at the box office its first weekend, exceeding expectations; it is a gorgeously filmed movie with a score (by Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) that soars and grumbles perfectly to the images; it has incredible performances from its voice and live-acting cast. But Jonze’s greatest coup is that he confounded everyone’s expectations to make a movie that is simple, honest, and open to interpretation by people of all ages. For the children the movie is funny, and the monsters are scary and empathetic at the same time, Max is relatable. If there are moments that seem scary or troubling that is all to the better, they are mysteries to figure out as one gets older, just as there were scary moments in past children’s classics. For the adults there is symbolism and beautiful images, and heartbreaking characters, raw emotions, and dialogue between the Wild Things that sometimes seems like conversations they would have with their friends. And if the story seems simple at times, that is all for the better, for in this age of postmodern hipster posturing, simplicity and honesty is refreshing.
Incredibly, despite all of the contradicting expectations hefted on this film before it was even released, Jonze delivered a movie that did the impossible; it is at once all things to all people, a heartfelt account of childhood and an entertaining film for children.
*Whether it would be a spectacular success or flop remained to be seen, but either way it appeared it would be a spectacle.
**I, of course, being one of those film geeks who couldn't wait for this movie to come out.