The Misuses of Enchantment

It’s obviously absurd to critically review a movie based on a trailer, but Suderman started it and the “Where the Wild Things Are” trailer is throwing up so many red flags that this bull has no choice but to charge.

I do not object in principle to taking a children’s book and making a movie for grownups out of it. That can be done very well indeed – well enough that, in spite of becoming a movie for grownups, it’s still a great movie for children. Gene Wilder’s performance as Willy Wonka, for example, is absolutely heartbreaking – and yes, that radically changes the story (the original book was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory while the movie is “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, and that change is neither accidental nor incidental), but it changes it by recentering it, not by being false to it.

A “Where the Wild Things Are” emotionally centered on the mother – or, more daringly, on the wild things themselves – could be interesting, and could work on its own terms. I can imagine other, perhaps less-interesting ways of approaching the book from the perspective of nostalgia that could also work as works of art, without being false to the original – there’s a terrible risk you might wind up casting Robin Williams if you went that route, but I think one could avoid that fate with proper care.

But the work must be respected. This is not a book about a lonely sad-eyed child who needs to find a place where he is loved and accepted and where he can learn to cut loose. Max is a wild thing! His mother is pulling her hair out he’s so wild! He’s not “acting out” because of “issues” – he’s wild! And he likes being wild! And he dreams of breaking free of the confines of home and being with his fellow wild-things!

Can you imagine the Max of Spike Jonz’s movie taming the wild things with the trick of staring into each of their yellow eyes without blinking once? Can you imagine them being frightened of him, and naming him king of all wild things? Can you imagine him sending them all to bed without their supper?

And forget the sad-eyed kid – what’s the deal with the sad-eyed wild things? I remember the wild things from the book. As I recall, they rolled their terrible eyes and gnashed their terrible teeth and showed their terrible claws. They didn’t even grin – they leered. They were wild things!

(BTW: the faces of the wild things were purportedly based on Sendak’s childhood recollections of his uncles and aunts from the old country – huge honkers, bad teeth, hands all over you. They were supposed to be scary. Sendak was scared of them!)

Oh, and one final point. Max of Where the Wild Things Are – the book – is a wild boy chafing against the civilizing (and entirely reasonable) constraints of female authority. Is this really a story with no resonance at all for a contemporary filmmaker in touch with a contemporary audience? So that he had to go and make a movie (as it appears) about reconnecting with his own hurt and abandoned inner child? Really?