(Hot chicks dykin’ out? Hell yeah, now it’s a wild rumpus.)
Where the Wild Things Are is one of the weirder mainstream movies I’ve ever seen. The pacing is… off. It drags in spots. You’re not sure where it’s going, it feels like an imprecise parable, and it’s full of non-sequitirs. But in a way, it’s a perfect adaptation of the book — a book which is only ten sentences long and, if you read it as adult, isn’t even that well written. But there’s something strange and fantastic about it that it’s stuck with so many of us as a pleasant feeling well into adulthood, like an awesome dream you can’t fully articulate and doesn’t make sense after you wake up. Like the memory of reading the book for the first time, much of WTWTA is like being trapped in the mind of a 10-year-old, but it’s more like the 10-year-old you remember being, rather than the idiot 10-year-old Michael Bay makes movies for.
Plot wise, there isn’t much to it. Max lives with his older sister who’s begun to ditch the family for her friends, and his single mom (Catherine Keener) who’s overwhelmed with juggling work and family and trying to date Mark Ruffalo. In the opening scene, Max waits for his sister and her friends outside the house to ambush them with snowballs (he doesn’t fill them with dog poop, like I used to do). As they fight back, he takes cover in the homemade igloo he’s built for that purpose. Predictably, his sister’s friends chase him into the igloo and then jump on top of it. The sequence, shot from within the claustrophobic interior of the igloo which abruptly collapses with Max in it, in an instant goes from happy memory to f-cking terrifying. Max’s sister and her friends, meaning no harm, dig out the crying Max, but quickly take off to do older kid stuff. And with just a few carefully chosen facial expressions, you really remember what it was like to be a kid and be embarrassed, lonely, abandoned, and pissed off all at the same time, a rage you take out on your stupid sister when you smash up a bunch of her sh-t in her bedroom and then feel bad about it.
Before too long, Max puts on his Wolf pajamas, gets pissed at his mom, shouts “I’ll eat you up!” bites her on the shoulder, and takes off on a boat to the realm of the Wild Things. How? We’re inside Max’s mind now, there is no how here. Once he crashes his little boat on the rocky shores of Wild Thing land, he meets the Wild Things — big but super emo Carol (James Gandolfini), too-cool-for-school KW (Lauren Ambrose), Douglas the Giant Chicken (Chris Cooper), Alexander the sensitive goat thing (Paul Dano), couple Ira and Judith (Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara), and Bull, who doesn’t really talk but is goddamned amazing looking.
From there the story wanders, with occasional flashes of brilliance, like listening to a story told by a grade schooler. Carol is volatile and always either happy or pissed about something — kind of a stand-in for Max’s id, while KW is clearly a manifestation of Max’s sister, always going off to do cooler stuff and making Carol mad. The rest of the people? Who knows. But thank God it’s not so easily reductive as that. There’s a spontaneity to it — it’s play, not symbolism — and the best parts are the child-like absurdisms and non-sequitirs, like Carol yelling, “Everyone! I don’t have to eat my feet off anymore!” And how KW’s best friends are owls that she knocks out of the sky with a rock.
I can see why WTWTA wouldn’t be for everyone — it has that quality of feeling like the fantastic is supposed to be some deep symbolism that it never quite articulates. But f-ck symbolism. What would it be a parable for anyway, the struggles of a middle-class 10-year-old? Who gives a sh-t. I prefer to enjoy the delightful strangeness of it and feel it’s at its best when things feel like a happy accident. It has a lot of the same qualities as co-writer Dave Eggers’ books. The guy can write 20 pages about the feeling of playing frisbee on the beach with your little brother until you’re practically shouting, “CHRIST, MAN, GET ON WITH IT!” But he nails certain feelings so well that in the end you forgive some of the expansiveness, the sentimentality.
And maybe Spike Jonze is the perfect foil, because for all of Eggers’ ability to write endlessly about nothing, WTWTA is only 94 minutes long, just about the right length for a movie, even though everyone seems to be edging nearer to the three-hour mark these days. And visually, the guy is a genius. There’s an intuitiveness to the filmmaking where it can make you feel happy or sad before you even really know why. And above all else, it looks great. Wasn’t that always the strength of the book?