Wild child, full of grace: Where the Wild Things Are ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

Pathos, on a cliff by the sea: Where the Wild Things Are

 Shilo, when I was young
I used to call your name
When no one else would come
Shilo, you always came
and we’d play

 -from “Shiloh” by Neil Diamond

Childhood is a magical time. Well, at least until the Death of Innocence…whenever that is supposed to occur. At what point DO we slam the window on Peter Pan’s fingers? When we stop believing in faeries? That seems to be the consensus, in literature and in film.

In Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire; only children can “see” the angels. Even when the fantastical pals are a bit more tangible, the adults in the room keep their blinders on. In Stephen Spielberg’s E.T., Mom doesn’t initially “see” her children’s little alien playmate, even when she’s seemingly gawking right at him. Of course, when the protagonist with the “imaginary” friend is an adult, he’s either dismissed as being drunk (Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey), crazy (Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams), or both (Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club).

These adults, naturally, are acting…“childish”. Why is “childish” such a dirty word, anyway? To paraphrase Robin Williams, what is wrong with retaining a bit of  “mondo bozo” to help keep your perspective? Wavy Gravy once gave similar advice: “Laughter is the valve on the pressure cooker of life. Either you laugh and suffer, or you got your beans or brains on the ceiling.” Basically (in the parlance of psycho-babble) they are advising to “stay in touch with your Inner Child”.

Director Spike Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggars both get their Inner Child on in a big way in Where the Wild Things Are, a bold and wildly imaginative film adaptation of the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak. Blending live action with expressive CGI/Muppet creations, the filmmakers construct a child’s inner fantasy world that lives and breathes, while avoiding the mawkishness that has been the ruin of many a children’s film. In actuality, this arguably may not qualify as such in the strictest sense; perhaps no more so than Lord of the Flies or Pan’s Labyrinth can be labeled as “children’s” films.

Young Max (Max Records) lives with his mother (Catherine Keener) and teenaged sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) in suburbia. Max is a modern poster child for Ritalin; he’s the type of kid who, before the days of ADHD over-diagnosis, would be described as having an “overactive imagination” (or maybe a selfish little brat). At any rate, we’ll just say that he definitely has some anger management issues stemming from (among other things) feelings of abandonment by his father (whether this situation was precipitated by death or divorce isn’t made quite clear, unless I overlooked something obvious).

He appears to have a loving relationship with his mom, but her job pressures, along with the additional stresses of single parenthood are obviously putting the damper on their quality time. His sister is too sidetracked by the social whirlwind of burgeoning adolescence to take interest in bonding with Kid Brother, and he doesn’t seem to have any peers to hang with. In short, Max is the Lonely Little Boy.

One evening, his mother’s boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) comes for a visit, triggering a particularly unseemly episode of “acting out” by Max. A defiant standoff with his exasperated mom culminates with Max physically attacking her. Surprised and confused by the ferocity of his own behavior, a spooked Max runs off into the night to wrestle with his demons. Somewhere in the course of this long dark night of his 9 year-old soul, in the midst of a panicky attempt to literally flee from his own actions, Max crosses over from Reality into Fantasy (even children need to bleed the valve on the “pressure cooker of life”).

This pivotal transition is handled beautifully and subtly by the filmmakers; a sequence that I found reminiscent of the unexpectedly lyrical and fable-like interlude in Charles Laughton’s otherwise foreboding noir thriller, The Night of the Hunter, in which the children find respite from trauma via a moonlit, watery escape.

Max washes up on the shore of a mysterious island where he finds that he suddenly has the ability to not only wrestle with his inner demons, but run and jump and laugh and play with them as well. These strange and wondrous manifestations are the literal embodiment of the “wild things” inside of him that drive his complex emotional behaviors; anthropomorphic creatures that also pull double duty as avatars for the people who are closest to him.

At first, the beasts are reflexively territorial, threatening to serve him up for dinner if he doesn’t prove his mettle; Max is quick enough on his feet to figure out that he is going to have to make up in clever invention (his specialty, luckily) for what he lacks in physical size in order to keep himself out of the soup kettle. Somehow he convinces them that he is not only worthy of their trust, but is an excellent candidate to become their “king” as well (I’m no psych major, but if your emotions threaten to consume you, the only effective way to conquer them is to take control of them, right?)

Max forges an instant bond with the fearsome yet benign Carol (James Gandolfini) who serves as both father figure and soul mate (he also thinks it’s a hoot to rage and howl and break shit to blow off steam). Inversely, Max also is drawn to the calming countenance of the laid-back KW (Lauren Ambrose), who is a morph of a maternal/big sister confidant.

It is intimated that KW and Carol are weathering a rocky period in a long-running personal relationship (I don’t need to spell out the significance of that). All the voice-over actors do a commendable job of infusing some genuine heart into the various creature personalities (Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and Catherine O’Hara are on board as well). The episodic nature of the film’s structure may be trying for some; on the other hand, one must consider that such leaps of faith in logic are, after all, the stuff dreams are made of.

That Jonze and Eggars were able to wring this much compelling narrative and fleshed out back stories from what was essentially a child’s picture book with minimal text and virtually no exposition, and execute it all with such inventive visual flair (lovely work from DP Lance Acord), is quite an amazing accomplishment.

In a way, Jonze was the perfect director for this project. His two previous feature films (both collaborations with the iconoclastic Charlie Kaufman, known for writing densely complex, virtually un-filmable screenplays) were expert cinematic invocations of journeys into “inner space”. In Being John Malkovich, the protagonist literally finds a portal into another person’s psyche; Adaptation dived headlong into the consciousness of a blocked writer.

With his new film, Jonze seems to have drilled a portal both into the mind of Maurice Sendak, and straight into the collective memory of childhood lost. And now, if you will excuse me, I’m going out to the back yard to play for a while. And may your wild rumpus never end.

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