This must be the official Year of the Incredibly Depressing Kids Movie That Isn’t Really For Kids, because this is twice now I’ve walked out of a movie sold as an upbeat children’s fable and gotten a straight jacket and a mouthful of happy pills.
Is Hollywood trying to create a whole generation of manic-depressive children? If so, they’re doing a pretty damn good job of it. First Up taught them that your dreams will all be squashed and your loved ones are all going to die, and now Where The Wild Things Are takes it one step further by telling them that their entire lives will be filled with mistakes of their own devising, they’ll hurt everyone they love, and that the road to hell is paved with the best of good intentions. I haven’t been this depressed by a movie since I spliced Old Yeller‘s shooting into the middle of a Leaving Las Vegas/Requiem For A Dream double feature.
Maybe I’m just getting exceptionally sensitive in my old age, but I spent half an hour of the movie listening to other people cry while trying not to tear up myself. It’s an exceptionally moving movie with the monsters being the perfect stand-ins for Max’s emotions, his family, and his perilous journey between childhood and young adulthood.
Max (Max Records) is a kid with a lot of hurt and anger inside him, and his imagination is his only escape. His mother (Catherine Keener) is struggling in her career and dating a new man, his sister is a teenager with no time for her little brother, and Max has… well, his imagination.
The character design of the beasts is absolutely stunning; they’re pitch-perfect recreations of Maurice Sendak’s characters and the voice acting is incredible with James Gandolfini (Carol), Lauren Ambrose (KW), Catherine O’Hara (Judith), Forest Whitaker (Ira), Chris Cooper (Douglas) and Paul Dano (Alexander) providing the souls of the massive Wild Things. The blend of puppetry and CGI to give the Things movement and life is just one of the most incredible things I’ve seen in a movie. At any point, if the Wild Things don’t seem completely real, the magic is blown. They’re crucial to the movie, and Spike Jonze absolutely nails them perfectly.
One issue with the movie is that it bogs down in the middle. Given that it’s loosely based off a book that is mostly illustrations, it’s a given that there’s not a whole lot of meat to chew on, but there’s a lot in the middle that seems like it’s just there to pad out the film. It’s pretty padding, but could still be cut and the story would have been more effective. Ninety-four minutes is a bit much, and I found my attention wandering (the auditorium full of children didn’t help).
Where The Wild Things Are is a very well-done adaptation of a pretty tough to handle book, but it is definitely not for children. There are themes that would be great for children to see, but I think the kids of age to read the original book wouldn’t get quite so much out of it as older, pre-tweens might. It will undoubtedly cause a lot of parent/child talks, which is probably a good thing. It’s just so morose and distressing.
I guess that it’s so moving is the sign of a great piece of art, but it’s not a feel-good movie by any stretch of the imagination, even with the positive elements. Just because it has a happy ending, that doesn’t mean it’s a happy movie. Where The Wild Things Are is a little too much like life, beautiful and heartbreaking, and like life, it is what you make of it.