By Elijah Sullivan
Poor children. Look at the garbage we make them watch.
No commercial motion picture is as contrived as what Hollywood produces for the child market. The role of children’s stories has always been functional. The purpose is to shut the brat up. From Grimm’s Faerie Tales to Walt Disney animations, the product is not about pleasing kids: it’s about pleasing adults.
Which is why Where the Wild Things Are may be the only good children’s film ever made.
The best part is that this is a film a child could have made. From the breathless opening moments to the starry-eyed final shot, there is little resembling an adult perspective anywhere in the film. Nor is it required, as child filmmakers are somewhat under-represented at the multiplex, and the last thing they need is another grownup trying to second-guess their sense of fun.
Not to marginalize Spike Jonze’s skills as a filmmaker: after directing exceptional adult fare (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), Jonze was hand-picked by author Maurice Sendak to create what amounts to an art film for kids. The final result perplexed the studio, although Sendak reportedly considers the film superior to the iconic book it was adapted from.
There are two urgent questions that moviegoers are asking: 1) Is it too scary for kids?, and 2) Should a dignified adult be ashamed to go see it alone?
The answer to both questions is “no.” If the purpose of art is to combat ignorance, Wild Things has more artistic merit than any work of children’s fiction since Mark Twain introduced Huck Finn. The appeal should be nearly as broad.
Sure, it’s going to piss off parents with all the talk about cruelty, alienation and death, because the filmmakers don’t display the self-censuring nature that adults are supposed to adopt around children. Without at least a pretense of honesty, art simply isn’t possible.
Protective parents who want a “safe” movie to pacify their youngsters may feel a bit ambushed by the film, and resent the slew of questions that will inevitably. Someday parents will get that their kids want their movies scary – not violent, but a little perilous. Not disturbed, but maybe a little urgent.
There is lightness and vitality in the film, especially in the many sequences where Max is at play and Jonze’s hand-held camera turns it into a roller-coaster. Just as tumultuous are the fierce bouts of melancholy that maybe originate from the book (“I could eat you up, I love you so”), but may come from the fact that Jonze was in his early 30s when he agreed to make the film, and turned 40 this week (October 22), having watched child actor Max Records age while the film languished in editorial purgatory
Which leads me to my primary complaint: after the studio deemed Wild Things “too scary”, they ordered expensive reshoots to commercialize the film, eventually pushing back the release date by 18 months to allow for endless tinkering.
Lots of studio tinkering in the editing room usually makes a film a bit incoherent, and at times this symptom is more pronounced than is ideal. But the most unfortunate consequence of the delay was allowing audiences to age 18 months before they could see this film.
Don’t wait another minute.