Childhood's End

Oh, yeah, I reminded myself as I resentfully watched a woman carrying her small son, who was wearing a cardboard crown and wolf pajamas, into the theater, this movie isn’t really for me. Strange as it seems now, throughout the interminable lead up to Where the Wild Things Are’s release, I’m pretty sure this is the first time it occurred to me that this is a children’s movie. People will not be hiring sitters.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s made this mistake, though. Ever since we found out Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze were attached to the project, Where the Wild Things Are became the new unofficial movie for Generation Meh. Finally, a beloved childhood memory that Hollywood wouldn’t let Mike Myers or Jim Carrey cornhole with crummy makeup jobs and poorly disguised dick jokes. But then we heard the bad news: The film, this pitch-perfect slice of nostalgia that no one had actually seen — was being reshot. We became livid. How dare these two-bit Tinseltown suits move to protect their multimillion dollar investment with something much more important — the feelings of dozens of entertainment bloggers — at stake?

Well I’m here to tell you that whatever reshooting the studio demanded — whether it was the small technical stuff they claimed or the massive rewriting we feared — was absolutely, 100-percent needed. Some subsequent director’s cut may one day prove me wrong, but for now, I’m saying this movie is completely unimproveuponable.

Turns out I was wrong about this film not being for me. WTWTA is a true family movie with a target audience of every single human, whether you’re a small child, a young father who’s wiping his nose as he leads his daughter out of the theater, or a jaded, childless, 27-year-old film critic silently cursing the little shits in the audience every time they make an out-loud obvious observation such as “his sister is really mean,” or “he’s really far away from home right now.” Yeah, he is, little girl, now shut the fuck up before I strangle you with your fuzzy little pinned-on tail. Some of us are trying to reconnect with our inner child here.

Reconnect away. The true brilliance of Jonze and Eggers’s screenplay is that Maurice Sendak deserves most of the credit. They’ve fleshed out the story, of course — Max (Records) gets a too-cool older sister, divorced parents, and an awesomely gloomy science teacher — but all of the themes, from childhood’s chaotic entropy to the unbearable pain and occasional joy of being part of a family, come straight from the original book. Granted, without some added scenes, a direct adaptation of the book would’ve been about 15 minutes long, but the story’s basic structure — Max misbehaves and pisses off his mom, travels to the location of the uncivilized beings, then misses his family and comes home — remains happily intact.

The film’s opening sequence, in which Max watches his sister’s friends destroy his snow fort, loses a contest for his mom’s attention to her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), and learns at school about the eventual death of the sun, grounds the film so firmly in the lonely, confusing reality of childhood that his eventual escape into the land of make-believe is a little unsettling. My more cynical side kept expecting to discover that Max is hallucinating all of the film’s fantastic elements while he lies bleeding out at the bottom of an abandoned well.

The Wild Things themselves are destined to become the subject of overwrought thesis papers for years to come. Whether they represent various characters from the film’s opening, a la the Wizard of Oz, or various aspects of Max’s own psyche should be left to the freshman comp students of tomorrow, but the important thing is that each one of these CGI-enhanced Jim Henson creatures has a dimensional character, partially thanks to some well-written dialog, but mostly due to the excellent voice performances from dramatic heavyweights Gandolfini, Cooper, Whitaker, and O’Hara. Each of these characters has its own personality, feelings, and emotional hang-ups, and Max, as king of the Wild Things (a position he secures with the heartbreaking promise to “keep the sadness away”), must spend a huge portion of screentime working as therapist. I never knew monsters could be so emo.

And that’s actually the only criticism I can think of: Nothing much really seems to happen. I kept expecting some kind of big action-packed resolution, but true to the book, there really isn’t one. Max plays with some incredibly well-made monsters, misses his mom, and goes home. I thought the kids in the audience would be bored, but the ones around me became entranced. I’d forgotten, like most Hollywood executives producing children’s movies these days, that kids don’t really have short attention spans; they can sit through anything if the subject interests them. If Andy Warhol’s 24-hour **** had been about a boy building a fort and having dirt-clod fights with big hairy monsters, I’d have made my parents rent it every time we went to the video store.

“I’m not a Viking or a king or anything,” Max finally admits to his monster buddy Carol (Gandolfini).

“So what are you?” Carol asks bitterly.

The question (but, crucially, not the answer) lies at the heart of Where the Wild Things Are. It’s far from the only child-centered film to set its sights on the adults in the audience, but it’s maybe the first I’ve seen since Pan’s Labyrinth to explore what childhood really means. Bring some Kleenex, and, please, get a damn babysitter. — Jeremy Martin

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