Manohla Dargis said the movie “startles and charms and delights.” The book is fantastic. It was cold and rainy all weekend. So I took my children, of course, and was startled to discover a heavy divorce drama that alternately terrified and bored. There are many sublime and original moments in the movie. But overall, the experience is like being trapped in an est session from the 1970’s, with lots of people yelling and haranguing one pitiful little boy, and family breakdown (and Jim Nelson) looming in the background. Needless to say, it was barely appropriate for kids.
The movie starts out promisingly. Max is alone and his sister won’t play with him, so he plays with the fence and a new snow fort he’s just built. He starts a snowball fight, gets hurt, and cries. It matters and it doesn’t matter. This is perfect. It’s not in the book, of course, but it preserves the spirit, by animating the extreme emotions of an ordinary day through a spirited child’s imagination.
But then Max sees his mother kiss her new boyfriend, and it’s all downhill from there. The movie becomes about a singular boy whose parents are getting divorced, whose mother is stressed out, and whose dad has disappeared. Instead of being 6 or 7, as he is in the book, Max is more like 10, which means he picks up on dark feelings but can’t really translate them.
The wild things are parallels to his broken family; it begins with them smashing their houses-get it? The Tony Soprano wild thing is his dad, and the women are parts of his mom, in a good and bad mood. The inscrutable owls-around which there is much confusion-are the mom’s new boyfriends. From there, the plot of Kramer vs. Kramer unfolds. His mom is unreliable, while his dad is angry and depends on him. Max feels both omnipotent and invisible.
It’s too specific to be allegory, so instead it’s just plain boring, or terrifying. Unlike in the book, the adventure takes place outside, not in his room, which raises the possibility of true abandonment and danger. At one point the Tony Soprano wild thing (Carol) gets out of control, and almost bashes the boy’s head in. In the end Max leaves, neither triumphant nor enlightened. He learns, and admits that he has no power, but this realization only leaves him depleted and helpless.
The original Where the Wild Things Are picks up on a common theme in children’s books. Through their imagination, kids regain control of scary or confusing situations. They get to tell lies, master the monsters, and then go home to a hot supper. Not celluloid Max. In the final scene of the movie, his mom hugs him and gives him supper. But then she FALLS ASLEEP. She is still the overworked, harried divorcee she always was.
Of course my kids were not offended or annoyed. They mostly had no idea what was going on, because this was a tale told from a 60-year-old psychoanalyst’s point of view. “I’m bored.” “I’m scared.” That’s what my 6-year-old son kept repeating. The hipster in suede Pumas sitting next to us-the movie was intended more for him, after all-glared.