Friday, 24 June 2016

Film Review - 'Where The Wild Things Are'

When I was a child, I had the distinct honor of being cast in a school play based on Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak's classic children's book. I played a tree. That was fair enough, really - after all, I wasn't really the sort of child capable of memorizing lines, or of maintaining my composure in front of an audience.

What was I thinking about as I stood there with my arms held over my head, though? Honestly, I can't remember. I was probably still too young, at the time, to have discovered Star Wars, or the simple joys of watching Hulk Hogan tossing people around a ring - both of which took up large chunks of my childhood. The one thing I can say for certain is that I probably wasn't thinking about Where The Wild Things Are. It may be a classic, and an important part of the childhood of many people around the world, but I just don't remember ever reading it - or, of having it read to me.

So I suppose it would be fair to say that, going in to a film based on this classic children's story, I simply didn't have the feelings of nostalgia that it seemed clearly intent on playing on. In the end, though, I decided to give the film a chance anyway. And, ultimately, I was glad that I did.

Max is a clearly troubled young boy, prone to violent outbursts, who feels neglected and isolated within his own family. His sister is too old, now, to want her little brother following at her heel, and his mother has responsibilities of her own – a job, and a new relationship – both of which take time away from Max. After a particularly violent outburst, Max is sent to his room – but, instead, runs away.

What follows can be taken either was a literal journey, a dream, or a product of pure imagination, as Max finds his way to a boat, and sets out to a distant island inhabited by strange creatures – the titular Wild Things. The leader of this bizarre group, Carol, takes a shine to young Max, and crowns him as the new king of the Wild Things – and the rest, despite their initial desire to eat Max, quickly fall in line.

Taken as a movie for children, Where The Wild Things Are makes for a strange experience. It is content to move at a leisurely pass, for the most part – and, you can easily imagine many children growing bored well before it's over. The monsters themselves are impressive, if not occasionally intimidating, creations. The potential threat they pose to Max, both intentionally and unintentionally, is never shied away from – and, includes a couple of scenes that are especially creepy, if not outright scary. Though, this is perhaps to be expected in a movie that prominently features a group of monsters – and, besides, there's never been any rule that said that stories for children couldn't be scary. What's unexpected, though, is that it occasionally makes for an incredibly sad film.

Described by director Spike Jonze as a movie about childhood, rather than a movie for children, a large portion of the film is devoted to exploring the unique fears felt by children. Isolation and parental abandonment, or at least the perception of them, are issues that form the heart of the film, and, are explored at length. First, through Max himself, then through the monsters he meets. In each of these distinct segments, there is also a long-suffering parental figure struggling to understand the 'child' under their care, and trying to do the best they can. Max's mother, in relation to Max, is shown to be clearly trying, despite what Max may think – and seems to be entirely undeserving of his violent outbursts. Later, Max, when he finds himself as the leader and caregiver for the group of Wild Things, finds himself similarly unable to cope.

The focus of the film is on that particularly difficult period of transition faced by all children of a certain age – where they are forced to learn that they cannot always be the center of their parent's world, and that they cannot always have their wishes and desires catered to. Max learns this lesson through his interaction with the monsters, particularly Carol, and returns to his family with a better understanding, and perhaps appreciation, of his mother's role. It's an important lesson, of course, and something that we are all expected to learn at some point in our lives. But, whether this is a lesson that child viewers can understand, and take to heart, is another matter entirely.

It seems just as likely that the real lesson is for the parents themselves – a reminder of what it's like to be a child, in the hope that they may be able to better understand their own children.

What we have in the end, then, is a film that seems to be targeted more at an audience who read the story as children, and who have since grown up, rather than one for children today. Though, for what it's worth, Maurice Sendak himself has gone on record as saying that, in his opinion, the film is absolutely fine for children.

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