The source material to the film Where The Wild Things Are either makes it fairly easy or fairly difficult to adapt it to the cinematic medium. Everyone who has been interested in this project (except for the studio producers) has agreed up until its release that Spike Jonze was the right director for this job. What Jonze filmed, however, is bound to change the opinion of many. It’s pointed out here, fittingly, that this is a “children’s art film,” something that will disappoint many critics by its non-mainstream form and style but that perfectly captures the mood and heart of Maurice Sendak’s book. Perhaps the truest point here is how Jonze uses Antonioni-esque imagery – echoes of Zabriskie Point and others – to contribute toward the conflicted feelings prevalent throughout the film. While it is in a sense ironic that the least child-like of filmmakers is being appealed to for a proper understanding of a children’s film, in fairness the point holds true. Though it may be true that many children will find this film less than compelling, many children nowadays will find the book even less so, but at least with the ever-shortening attention spans of youth these days, the book will be over with faster. Fitting again, then, that the book is based in the same time period as some of Jonze’s cinema sources.
Where The Wild Things Are in some ways either stands or falls depending on one’s need for those quintessentially “cinematic” moments, those narrative halts that take place at varying points in a film that appeal directly to the emotive and/or intellectual intuition of the viewer that raises both the viewer and the film’s concerns above the form of the film itself. These moment are becoming more common now that conventional narrative film has “been done.” For example, most people don’t find M. Night Shyamalan’s films very interesting anymore, since The Sixth Sense gave spectators a good idea of what to expect narratively from his films. People want something different, and Shyamalan’s subsequent films haven’t been different enough to match the popularity of his first hit. In a similar way, narrative film in the vein of “golden age Hollywood” is bound to work not as well now as it did then. A basic structure with basic devices were used, and then changes started to take place in cinema to keep viewers coming. Antonioni didn’t happen in a vacuum; he followed and changed and built upon a form that was more standard. European art cinema tried to make radical changes in form, which it did, but most of these changes were not necessarily bound to attract lots of viewers, especially in the U.S., and especially not these days. As a result, the last fifteen-to-twenty years have seen major shifts in narrative style and art-film formal techniques being employed within neo-conventional narratives to heighten the viewer’s awareness through form when the narrative is reaching a moment of peaking thematic or aesthetic importance. These moments do not occur in Where The Wild Things Are in the way most viewers are presently accustomed to seeing them.
So again the comparison to Antonioni is fitting. Antonioni’s films, especially post-L’avventura, were defined by form over narrative. Since form ran consistently above the story, there were no moments when form could transcend it; it was already doing that. Those little spine-tingling moments, sometimes employing melodramatic motifs and sometimes appealing to an ideal-informed aesthetic sensibility, are very subtle at the few moments when they are present. It is more difficult to see form transcending form than to see form transcending narrative. All this being said, Where The Wild Things Are certainly features a narrative, but the narrative operates much like it does in the book: as something that the form can break out of, followed by a quiet, almost whispered moral lesson. Perhaps this is quite fitting, since childhood doesn’t really feel like a narrative to a child. It feels like a lot of disconnected moments, often punctuated by feelings of melancholy and sublime happiness. “What” happens is less important than what happens to “me”, or how I feel about what happens.
Though the book has a moral, it is anything but preachy. The film increases the presence of moral content in the film, probably because there was little way around it. With more time to fill, there is more of Max being a very naughty boy. Say what you will about the notion of a “children’s art film”; children are rarely smart or moral enough to watch a film in such a detached way not to mimic the actions – moral or immoral – of its main subject. Why do children’s books (and, theoretically, films) so often have a moral message to them? For this reason. A subtle moral for children is a preachy one to adults; a subtle message for adults is non-existent for children. So, when the book ends and Max is still confined to his room – notwithstanding having a warm dinner from a loving but disciplining parent – a certain message is clear that there are still consequences to one’s actions, even if one is a child and is learning these things for the first time. The absence of discipline (and dialogue) in the film’s final minutes is the biggest departure from the book. A children’s book or film should not be required to end with a strong moral message. When moral content is at the heart of a narrative, however, it does seem odd when the story finishes with a sort of disregard for morals.
This may be the big irony about Where The Wild Things Are being a children’s art film. There are three kinds of people in the world: children, adults, and parents. Not being a parent, I feel I’m doing a service to this third, excluded group with more of a right to define the children’s art film than the other two groups. Since no one has more reason to care about the books and the art that children encounter more than parents do, it might be best to evaluate these things from a more parental point-of-view. Where The Wild Things Are is beautiful, meaningful, powerful, and moving. It is a great creation by a group of talented people. In terms of its target audience – admitted to be children by Spike Jonze himself – it doesn’t so much mix its message as dismiss the very important one that it suggests. It values relationship, connection, friendship, and family. These things are of course to be valued, but as Max does well to demonstrate in the film, they cannot be valued without some kind of (gulp) boundaries. Unfortunately, this is where the wild things are not.