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The land the Wild Things inhabit is a land where all your expectations about a children’s movie are turned on their heads. The elements that are usually trite and shallow in most children’s films are fresh and fully-developed but the parts that usually work in children’s movies don’t work here.

Where the Wild Things Are expands upon the classic book (necessary because the book is something like nine sentences long) in some interesting ways. We meet Max in the real world, where he lashes out angrily at his sister and bites his mom. He runs away from home and comes across a boat that takes him to the land of the Wild Things, who now have names and personalities. Max becomes their king and leads them in a variety of pursuits like fort-building and dirt clod fighting.

While the film never explicitly says so, this is all an adventure in Max’s imagination. And it really does play out as if a child made up the story. Staying truthful to a child’s vision is quite interesting intellectually and conceptually, but in a lot of ways it doesn’t really work as a movie. It’s just aimless (kids don’t think in story arcs). Max become king because he says so. The dirt clod war ends with hurt feelings. A fort sounds cool so they build it. The actual plot doesn’t really do anything. It stays remarkably true to the conceit of an adventure a child in a certain mood might imagine but there’s a reason kids don’t write many movies.

The film succeeds in other ways, however. It creates some very well-developed and complex characters in Max and the Wild Things. All the Things are distinct, with their own personalities, flaws, and problems. The way we get to understand these characters is truly remarkable for any movie, let alone a kids’ movie where characterizations are often paper thin.

Director Spike Jonze also succeeds in imbuing the film with intense and earned emotion. This is not a happy kids’ flick that glosses over the negative parts of being a kid. It understands that kids feel the same emotions the rest of us do: anger, sadness, aggression. Like Dorothy in Oz, Max’s real life problems and emotional issues find homes in various Wild Things. (“And you were there,upset-for-being-ignored! And you were there, sister-abandonment-issues!”) And while this is fairly obvious, Jonze does a good job of not beating you over the head with it. Once again, the film’s emotional depth is a wonderful achievement.

But it doesn’t really make for a good movie. It’s technically quite proficient at imparting the emotions it wants but those emotions are all intensely mopey so that the film has an oppressively melancholy quality to it. The breaks for levity are just too few and far between. I’m not necessarily against a melancholy film or an aimless plot for that matter, but together they are a deadly combination, especially since the melancholy itself is aimless. There’s no apparent reason for the Things to be so despondent and there’s no real resolution. With motionless plot and characters the film feels slow.

And so I appreciate the concept of the film intellectually, respect its ambition, and have found some very fascinating and thoughtful discussions about it online, but it makes for a fairly dour and slow viewing experience. Ultimately it didn’t work for me but I appreciate how it’s given me much to think about. I’m curious if a second viewing would be more stimulating now that I’ve had a chance to ponder it a while and maybe I’ll give it another shot on DVD.

Some prognosticators thought it might sneak into the expanded Best Picture list this year but that seems unlikely now. The Things are technological wonders with furry bodies and computer animated heads. I could see a Visual Effects or Costume nod. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a band I really like, provides the music for the film, often accompanied by a chorus of children. I’ve listened to the soundtrack and I think the songs mostly work better as little snippets within the film like in the rousing music that marks the beginning to the wild rumpus. Still maybe a Song nomination is possible.

To recap:
Most children’s movies: Happy, fun, and full (often too full) of plot but with thin characterizations and little emotional complexity
Where the Wild Things Are: Aimless, dull plot full of moping but populated with complex characters and emotional sincerity

February 2020
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