By Corey Birkhofer
Where the Wild Things Are, USA / Germany, 2009
Directed by Spike Jonze
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) is arguably one of the most famous children’s books ever published. Its beautiful imagery and simple story touch on a desire in all of us that, even into adulthood, many of us never shed: the desire to go home. When I found out this incredible tale would be put onto the big screen, helmed by none other than quirky music video director extraordinaire Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), I was doubly intrigued. How would the images burned permanently into my mind be realized on screen? How would the wild things look? Would they just CG the hell out of everything and make a husk of a film with no soul? The answer to the CG question was boldly answered by Jonze, spending tons of studio money in the process on expensive Jim Henson Workshop-produced real working puppets and crazy wire-work stunts that have definitely advanced puppetry to the next level. And yet, despite the love and care that so obviously went into the crafting of this film, I still sat through it asking myself: “So when does the story start?”
I still sat there three-quarters of the way through the film saying to myself: “And now the little kid decides to just go home?” How could a children’s book that had no more than 10 sentences capture so much that a two-hour film could not? The answer is simple: a story. To me, Jonze’s film has none because a) Max (Max Records), the protagonist (if you could call him one) never changes and b) none of the problems of the characters in the film are solved. Instead, we have an attention-starved kid who rants and raves around for a couple hours amidst the strange relationships of some weird monsters, and then decides it’s time to go home after he can’t help them all get along and be friends.
Now, granted, I realize Jonze and his team had a hell of a mountain to climb in taking on a story such as this, which has been loved the world over for so many years. As someone who has written a few screenplays myself, I can only imagine how much of a challenge it must have been. But I would think that in 111 studio-approved pages, there would have to be some sort of a story rather than just some annoying kid who doesn’t get enough attention at home going to an island to be friends with some Prozac-deprived monsters, only to decide he just wants to go back home when the problems of his new monster friends are just too complicated for him to solve.
That’s when I realized that maybe this story-less film made it through the gates because the studio just left Jonze to his own devices due to his reputation and the built-in audience they knew they had, who would go to see the film for nostalgic purposes alone. That’s why Jonze was able to sneak in an anti-plot film produced by a major studio that uses a well-known children’s story as a platform for his ideas about how messed up relationships can be and how sometimes we just want to go home. So let me ask you this: as much as you may have loved the children’s book from your childhood, would you go out of your way to see a bunch of depressed monsters loll around for a couple hours, get bossed around by a kid who just wants attention, and then have him go home with none of the problems introduced in the film solved whatsoever? I would hope your answer is the same as mine: N-O.
I was also very excited to see this film when I heard that the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s frontwoman Karen O was producing the soundtrack and one of my favorite Arcade Fire songs, “Wake Up,” was used in the well-put-together trailer preceding the release of the film. In the end, I got let down when Arcade’s song appeared only in the trailer and Karen O’s so-called soundtrack was just her and her backing band wailing like banshees and bashing their instruments for two hours and calling it a day. I thought to myself how pretentious everyone who worked on this project was to just push out their artsy-fartsy crap without trying to tell an actual story. I thought how wrong it was for them to use people’s nostalgia to adapt a wonderful children’s story into a platform for their own masturbatory armchair-psychologist ideas about relationships. Lastly, I thought to myself: “Damn, I wish I could get paid to make a story-less movie with a crappy soundtrack just ’cause I’m an artsy, young and edgy music video director.”
And so, as the film reached its so-called third act and my wife looked over to me and gave me her “So this is the film you dragged me to?” look that she’s so good at doing, I wished I could get my 2,000 yen (about $20 US) back and at the same time sarcastically thank the creators of this film for bastardizing such a classic story from my childhood. My only hope is that none of my other favorite children’s books are adapted by Spike Jonze any time soon.
A personal message to Spike: Stick to making music videos, man, and leave the real storytelling to those out there who can actually do it.
Contact the Author: CoreyBirkhofer@MoviesIDidntGet.com