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June 5, 2010

New DVDs: Where the Wild Things Are

If I’m honest, I have to admit I was resisting the movie of Where the Wild Things Are, the DVD of which is really only new-ish by now. Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book holds an especially dear place in my heart, both from my own childhood (I think Sendak, like Mr. Rogers, will always be a touchstone for our entire generation) and as one of the first favorite books of my older son. I’d heard all the good things, including the author’s own enthusiastic endorsement of director Spike Jonze’s interpretation; I’d seen the stunning previews.

Actually, the previews may have been part of the problem, because they revealed the introduction of a backstory to Max’s escape. While I recognize the necessity of such things when you’re turning a 48-page picture book into a two-hour movie, it still worried me: I really didn’t want to see Sendak’s wondrous dreamscape reduced to a banal pop-psych explanation—a kid upset with his mom for having a boyfriend. So we never did make it out to see the movie when it was in theaters.

But when we realized last weekend that we’d put off seeing How to Train Your Dragon in theaters until it was no longer in any local ones (the closest apparently being 3,000 miles away in Anaheim, California, by that point), we had to manage Dash’s disappointment somehow. Remembering that I had finally allowed Where the Wild Things Are to reach the top of our Netflix queue, I grasped the opportunity it allowed us: to rescue our all too vaguely planned Friday movie night.

I soon discovered that my main concern was overblown. The focus of the film is firmly on Max, and what’s going on inside his head, throughout; while everyday family strife (an inconsiderate older sister; a beloved but busy mom played by the wonderful Catherine Keener; and, yes, the disliked boyfriend) does fuel his wild behavior, it's dealt with quickly, and we’re off to the land of the Wild Things in fairly short order. (I am not normally happy to see Mark Ruffalo reduced to a couple of minutes of screen time, but since he played the boyfriend, this one time, I was.)

There, he meets the remarkably dysfunctional Wild Things, who include the sad, sensitive, but violent Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini); Judah (Catherine O'Hara, brilliant as ever, even just as a voice), the self-described “downer” I'd describe more as a kvetcher; and Alexander (Paul Dano), the mopey one who complains (accurately) that no one listens to him. They are about to eat Max when he saves himself by claiming he is a king, and should be theirs. Desperate for leadership, for someone who can make sense of their world for them, they quickly agree enthusiastically, at which point the famous “wild rumpus” does indeed start. Of course, after auspicious beginnings, Max cannot possibly live up to the group’s expectations of him. Soon enough, they discover he’s not a king, and in fact is just like them: unsure of himself; frustrated and often bitterly angry that things never quite turn out as one hopes they will; disappointed in others and in himself.

We’re on pretty existential ground here, you’ll notice. Which is all very well for adults, for whom the movie works well, for the most part, as a poignant look at the frustrations of being a kid in a world that’s often disappointing and confusing. But this brings me to the other reason I think we never made it to the theater last year to see this: Who’s the movie for? Is Where the Wild Things Are a kids’ movie? I wasn’t sure back then, and now I see why: I don’t think it really is.

Mind you, there’s nothing objectionable, or really frightening, that makes it explicitly not a kids’ movie, either. It held Dash’s attention all the way through, and he enjoyed it well enough. But most of the heart of the film—the existential angst, if you will—went right over his head; he’s just too young, thankfully. When he experiences the feelings of frustration that this movie is about, he just gets angry, as Max and Carol do in the film. He doesn’t get wistful or sad, or start reflecting on the imperfections of existence.

So I'm pretty sure Where the Wild Things Are won’t be one of Dash’s go-to DVDs, one of the ones he watches over and over. Based on his initial reaction, I'd be surprised if he even wants to see it a second time. In its way, it’s like the opposite of a non-Pixar animated film: a film for adults that the kids will be happy to sit through. (I suppose you could say it’s about time we had one of those!)

One last thing: Visually, the film really is astonishing, and I’m sure that fact would play a far larger role in my writeup than it has, had we seen it in the theater. It still comes across at home (on a normal-size screen—we haven’t gone to the giant TV yet), but you simply appreciate the beauty; it doesn't blow you away, as I suspect it might on the big screen. So after all my hesitations and caveats, I kind of do wish, now, that we’d gone to the theater to see it!

[Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures]


  1. Those were exactly my concerns about the movie. I'm glad I read your review -- I imagine this would not have been an especially successful Family Movie Night.

    I'm so glad to have found your blog, via Dinner: A Love Story. I just loved Cookie; it was just so sophisticated and well produced. I thought it was criminally stupid of CN to shut you guys down. At least I can still visit you in cyberspace, I suppose.

  2. Thanks for the kind words! And the movie night wasn't a disaster or anything, just not the wild success you get addicted to when a movie blows him or her away, you know?