October 16, 2009
Schuyler had a day off for parent-teacher conferences today, so Julie and I took the day off as well. After a brief and painless meeting, we went to see Where the Wild Things Are.
And now I have a few thoughts on the film, which was not at all what I expected.
I can't say that Schuyler loved it, not with the wild abandon she has loved other monster movies or kids' movies. She was fascinated, and she wanted to discuss it after, which is always a good sign, but I get the sense that she's still trying to decide how she feels about it. I certainly wouldn't describe Where the Wild Things Are as a monster movie or a fantasy film, but as for whether or not I would call it a kids' movie, I'm not so sure.
It's not a children's movie in the sense that the Wild Things themselves are in any way fantastical or entertaining as mythical creatures. They are very human, in some vaguely neurotic but very familiar ways. But I think that Where the Wild Things Are is VERY much a kids' movie in that it perfectly hits some emotional truths about what childhood is really like, and especially how horribly and confusedly we treat the people we love the most. That these truths come from the mouths and the actions of weird Sendak monsters makes the perspective feel new, and yet totally familiar.
It's easy as adults to forget that childhood can be in large part a scary and frustrating experience, full of insecurity and fear, and that like Max in the film (and to a lesser degree the book), often the only course available to kids who find themselves feeling powerless and afraid is to act out. Not in cute, "rambunctious" ways, but with an intense, feral energy that leaves them even more conflicted and fearful after it's spent.
When Max lashes out, it's a little shocking, not because we've never seen it before, but because the emotions that drive him remind us of our own long-buried childhood experiences. His issues stem from his own complicated family relationships. He loves the people around him, but his young emotions are complicated by his worry for their sadnesses which he cannot fix, and his rage at the complexity of his own place in their lives, and in a world where things aren't fair and the sun will one day die. Max is confused by his own anger, as if the choices he makes are inexplicable to him. You don't have to be ten years old for that to feel real.
When the Wild Things misbehave or simply express their own neurotic impulses badly, it also feels weirdly familiar. If you don't know someone in your real, adult life who can be represented by just about every one of the Wild Things, then I suspect you don't know very many people. More to the point, if you don't recognize significant parts of your own personality in each of the characters, I don't know. Maybe you're just more well-adjusted than I am, but there's also the possibility that you might be living a somewhat unexamined life. If you are open to the experience, I think Where the Wild Things Are presents a rare opportunity to examine that inner self.
Is it the book? No, it's not. If you are wanting to see the book, Where the Wild Things Are is not your movie. (Although really, the good news for you is that the book didn't suddenly cease to exist the day the film opened.) Like the best adaptations, the film takes a starting point from the book and becomes something alive and relevant in its own right.
For little kids, the ones for whom the original book is age-appropriate, this film probably isn't a good choice. Not because it'll be too scary, I don't think (except for one or two sequences, if your kid is especially sensitive), but because it is probably a little more introspective than they are looking for. The Wild Things might be cool monsters, but they're still mostly just talking things out.
Kids who are a little older may take to Where the Wild Things Are, however, in ways that may surprise parents who might fear that it's too dark. If I'd seen this movie when I was ten, I think it would have resonated with me like crazy. It certainly did now.