As I approached to face down my once-low, now verging-on-hopeful expectations, going to see Where the Wild Things Are with fellow film-buff Chadd Harbold, I was still secretly hoping it would be terrible, or that at least the dialogue would be or something, so that I could in some way blame Dave Eggers.
Unfortunately, I was denied my Eggers hate-fest as the movie turned out to be not only gentle and sensitive in its adaptation of the book, but supremely well structured in its narrative.
For those of you wondering, yes, there was a narrative.
Fast-forward to exiting the movie, walking with Chadd out on to the sidewalk as we began to process our opinions.
I can’t remember which one of us started with the ceremonial “Well…” that would indicate the beginning of the discussion of the movie.
But I remember the first thing out of my mouth, the same thing I had been thinking since the plot of the movie became apparent:
“Like a less literal Pan’s Labyrinth.”
The theater where we saw Where The Wild Things Are was Chadd’s favorite, an out-of-the-way out-post all-the-way east in the middle-upper housing development, Kips Bay.
I had noted the Loews Kips Bay before for having one of the most ingenious ideas of a movie theater I had ever seen: incorporating a Nathan’s into its concession stand.
Nathan’s famous french fries have all the delicious salty- and oily-ness of popcorn (and some of the crunch too) without all the pesky kernels that stick in your teeth.
But Chadd loved the Loews Kips Bay because it was largely abandoned; it was an over-large facility with huge screens and theaters that were never full.
Case and point was the 3:50 screening of Wild Things that we saw, which should have been over-run with tater-tots clinging to their moms, who were finally happy that they could show their kids something that might make them smarter without making them think that there were any magicians down in Greenwich Village or anywhere else.
“That’s Demi Lovato.” I commented to Chadd in the pre-screening enter-mercials that preceed the previews, citing the young woman singing with Disney characters.
“I think that’s pretty frightening that you know that.” Chadd told me and whatever I responded wasn’t a good enough answer to the allegation.
Anyway, the theater was more than half-empty and the tater-tots could be avoided with strategic placement and little effort at all.
After some all-animated previews (excluding a dreadful white-liberal-helps-black-child Sandra Bullock vehicle), the film began.
Where The Wild Things Are met my expectations in at least one significant way: It reminded me how much I like Spike Jonze.
Here Jonze, with his able cameraman Lance Acord, darts around with a rough-and-tumble energy to match the fierce movement and swinging moods of his 9 year-old protagonist Max. This same feeling is present whether Max is in reality or the more figurative Island of the Wild Things, since physical play is such a vital dynamic of the 9 year-old experience.
Not only does Jonze do an amazing job directing his young actor, Max Records (anyone who wants some insight into how he accomplishes should watch the truly genius featurette about the film here), he also maintains a child-like sense of wonder in the way he phrases the film, the look of the characters, the understanding of the world.
As Max escapes wearing the guise of a “wild” boy (a white-wolf costume), he is running Peter Pan-like from the realities of the world, from growing up, from realizing that he will not always have his mother’s attention, that he will not lways be a “king” in his own house. So he goes to a place where he is king, a place that is feral, like the imagination of a 9 year-old, a place that both grants the wish-fulfillment inherent in cinema and plays out like a dream, with the truth-telling of the unconscious manifesting over-and-over in the situations Max faces on the Island of the Wild Things. These Wild Things are in love, they are fighting, they are capable of laziness, insecurity, great power and great destruction. In a word, they are human, though they’re not, they’re wild. They’re Max’s conception of the adult world, of the forces in his life he must come to understand. Chief among these forces are the wild things Carol and K.W., who stand in for the parts of Max’s consciousness that are most at play and thus have the most integral role.
What transpires on that island is Shakespearean, it’s allegorical, it’s a play within a play, that denotes the tensions and realities of Max’s life without ever feeding us back-story like we were stupid. Instead, it achieves a Pixar-level of multiple layers, enjoyable and interesting in the movements and colors of its characters, but with a darker and more complicated message for those who dare seek it. In this way, it is a movie I show great respect for, because just like the book it was spawned from, Where The Wild Things Are as a film, allows a young, unsophisticated watcher the opportunity to begin to think about that realm, about their own wild place. It’s the sort of film, as the book was, that allows child to enter deeper into themselves and their conception of the world and for that it should be congratulated.
But of course, here’s the rub, going back to the quote I said coming out of the movie: Where the Wild Things Are IS a movie that bears a lot in common with Pan’s Labyrinth.
Both have precocious, young protagonists that show bravery in the face of difficult situations and seek refuge through fantasy.
Similarly, both allow multiple layers of entry through allegory and metaphor, through the art of fantastic visual storytelling.
The differences are marked clearly: Pan’s Labyrinth is an historical drama, as well as a coming-of-age film (what Wild Things arguably is). While Max’s view of the world is fairly in line with ours, his perspective only slightly stylized, Ofelia’s view of the world is constantly shaded through the prism of her storybook understanding: with characters of pure good and pure evil, monsters and heroes. I’ve heard this element of Pan’s Labyrinth as sometimes, forgive me, panned for its heavy-handedness. The detractors might say that the one-dimensionality of the characters in that film undermine its message or that Ofelia’s metaphoric challenges either don’t make sense for her emotional situation or else are boring. I find that as a reader of fantasy as a child, the idea of imagining reality in the terms of fantasy is intoxicating when the situations around you seem immutable and grim,
However, those who didn’t like those elements of Pan’s Labyrinth, would not have much to complain about in Where The Wild Things Are. There’s the same dichotomy of the real and imagined worlds, stand-ins and metaphors. But it’s all less literal, not only in the amount of Max’s world that we are not shown and instead left to imagine, but that unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, there is no inter-cut here between the “real” and “imagined” worlds. Whereas Guillermo Del Toro (director of Labyrinth) is a crafter of a distinct aesthetic like Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton, Jonze is someone who prefers a more shaggy-dog inter-mixing of the real and the fantastic. In both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the grittiness of personal issues becomes disturbed and interrupted by bouts with the unreal, after which supposedly “real” situations only may or may not return. If Del Toro is more story-book, Jonze is more Kerouac, more stream-of-consciousness.
When I decided to write this post, on a whim, I had seen someone compare to the two films on Facebook stating that “the wild rumpus was mostly hot air if you’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth”. I wrote this post because while I agree with the comparison, I don’t agree with the evaluation.
I remember my father once telling me a story when we went wine-shopping together. Like I played Magic cards or later video games, my dad liked to shop for wine and when I was younger it was interesting for me to accompany him, if not the least, to see him in his element, engrossed in something like I was involved in my own nerd-tastic endeavors. When he was looking at a shelf of wine, I asked him how he knew which ones were better, if he followed ratings, or had some sort of cost/taste ratio.
“You know,” He told me. “I remember asking the same question to a wine owner, a french guy, many years ago. He looked at me with some digust and he said, ‘Why does everything with you Americans have to be a baseball game with someone winning and some losing? Why can’t things just be what they are.'”
Pan’s Labyrinth and Where The Wild Things Are are both good films in their own right and I appreciated both of them. While I feel Jonze (or Eggers) might owe some debt to Del Toro for the structure of the storytelling (and that Del Toro should be commended for an original script), they’re different films, with their own strengths and weaknesses and I was happy to see both of them.
And later on in the evening, Chadd and I got real drunk and went to Rubulad, anyway.
J-Sam was there and he ended up leaving his shirt there, on accident.
A good night and day, indeed.
NATHAN’S AT LOEWS KIPS BAY THEATER
French Fries- Approx $5.00
2nd Ave bet. 31st and 32nd Sts
6 to 33rd St