Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Wild Rumpus Full of Existential Angst

When I was a kid, there were few places I loved more than the children's room at the local public library. My mother and I would frequently walk from our home to the library where I would spend hours pouring the shelves to find a new assortment of delights to take home. Of course, there were several "standbys" that were checked out by me so many times I'm shocked the librarian didn't just GIVE them to me -- Eloise, Tilly Witch, The Lorax, and, of course, Where the Wild Things Are. What kid didn't identify with Max, the rambunctious young protagonist who is sent to his room for being rowdy and sails away in his imagination to a land where his rowdiness is cherished and rewarded? Who didn't want to preside over a wild rumpus?

A few years ago, word got out that Spike Jonze would be tackling what seemed to be an impossible task -- turning Maurice Sendak's slim, 45-page book (many of them wordless illustrations) into a feature-length film. Initially, I had visions of some CGI monstrosity ala The Polar Express or Shrek where the heart that lies at the center of the film would be lost in creepy animation or fart jokes. And then I reminded myself that it was Spike Jonze who is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers. His two previous films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, are two of the best films I've seen in the past decade or so -- films that were funny and thoughtprovoking, messing with your mind in a way no other films have before. When you take Jonze's neo-aburdist take and mix it with screenwriter Dave Eggers's deft touch, you are certainly guaranteed something good, right?

Thankfully, the answer is "right." The result of this collaboration is truly masterful. What Jonze and Eggers have done is find the dark underbelly of Where the Wild Things Are, allowing the book to grow up with the thirtysomethings who grew up with the book while still creating a film that will appeal to the new generation of potential rumpusers. They have found in Max (Max Records) a boy filled with existential angst seemingly fueled by an absent father, a thoughtless sister, and a mother (Catherine Keener) who's trying her darndest to keep it all together. Max's world is filled with typical childhood heartbreaks, like the destruction of his igloo, as well as the pain of a more adult world, like the "discovery" that the world is doomed to collapse in the face of uncontrollable natural disasters. He seems to stand in that odd world between childhood innocence and adult cynicism, and his realization of that status fills him with alternately with grief and rage. He can't seem to express his confusion verbally so that frustration becomes physical -- tearing apart his sister's room or throwing a tantrum as his mother prepares dinner. That his pre-dinner tantrum seems to be rooted in the presence of a man (Mark Ruffalo) in his home who does not seem to be his father makes his actions both understandable and sad.

After fleeing from his mother, Max ends up in a land populated by a community of wild things that seems to mirror the fractured home from which Max has fled. Wild Thing Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is destroying their nests in a fit of rage, fueled by the absence of KW (Lauren Ambrose). KW has apparently abandoned her friends to spend time with her new friends, Bob and Terry, sending her community into despair as they wish things would go back to the way they used to be. KW and Carol become stand-ins for Max's own parents, giving us clues as to the cause of Max's own grief and rage and perhaps even letting us know why things in Max's family back in the real world seem so fraught with tension. At the same time, the wild things become representatives of sorts of Max's fractured id and ego. Judith (Catherine O'Hara) is frequently snarky and passive aggressive, just as Max is when he tells his mother he prefers real corn to frozen corn. Her companion Ira (Forest Whitaker) is clingy and desperate for approval and attention, just like Max frequently is with his mother and sister. Like Max, Alexander (Paul Dano) frequently feels ignored. Max attempts to help the wild things build a community in which only what you want to have happen happens, where people who are unwelcomed are punished for their trespass by having their brains explode, but he soon learns that such dreams are impossible, that there are some fractures that can't be fixed. No matter how much he wishes it to be so, there is no fixing the relationship between KW and Carol, but Max also seems to realize that being apart may be better for KW, Carol, and the community in the long run. As hard as you may try, there are some things that just can't be fixed.

This all sounds really deep and dark, I know, and you may be wondering how this could be appealing to kids. The thing is that it is. The matinee audience with which I saw the film was filled with children who giggled and cheered and roared throughout the film. The subtext went right over their heads, I'm sure, but that didn't mean that they couldn't find joy in Max's adventures. Like those of us who read the book as a child and found more depth when we revisited it as adults, I'm sure these children will revisit the film in a few years and see the deeper meaning here, too. They will surely revel in the moving performance of young Max Records who instills Max with heart, intelligence, and angst with single looks. They will marvel at the intelligence and realism that fills the faces of the wild things. They will embrace the artistry with which Jonze captured this world, never once resorting to cheesy gimickry to give us a world that is at once real and imaginary, earthy and out-of-this-world. They will laugh as I did and cry as I did and walk away thinking how lucky they were to have spent that time at a beautiful, glorious, and truly wild rumpus.

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