Two Torches (Out of Five)
It’s a bad movie.
But according to Rottentomatoes.com, Where the Wild Things Are, which opens on Friday, isn’t being panned. In fact, it’s getting mixed-to-decent reviews.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to figure this out, and here’s what I’ve come up with: there are two kinds of bad movies. There are those like G-Force or Year One, which are either cliched or formulaic, or just plain incompetently made.
Where the Wild Things Are isn’t bad like that. Director Spike Jonze at least tried to make something truly different, and critics really, really like it when filmmakers do that.
Much has been made of the fact that Jonze was trying to create the sense of being a nine year-old boy — the sense of confusion, the feeling that the world doesn’t make much sense.
He succeeded in that respect. He just didn’t make a very satisfying movie, or even an effective adaptation of the children’s book on which the film is based.
Here’s the story: a lonely, ignored kid runs away to a boat to sail to a land where monsters are real. Is this all in his imagination? We know from the book that it is, but we don’t know that from the movie. It’s like the movie can’t be bothered to fill in this part of the story, not even vaguely. It’s too intent on getting us to the land of monsters so it can show us:
- A ten-minute sequence where the boy and the monsters knock down their huts.
- A ten-minute sequence where one monster takes the kid on a journey to show him his model city.
- A ten-minute sequence where the monsters have a dirt-clod fight.
- A ten-minute sequence where the monsters all build a fort.
Sure, there’s a little flurry of an interesting conflict toward the end, and Catherine O’Hara has some funny lines as one of the monsters, but otherwise, story and character and conflict barely seem to matter.
So if it doesn’t really have a plot or a story, what is Where the Wild Things Are?
Basically, it’s an impressionist film “experiment.”
I’m all for film experiments, but the thing about experiments is that they sometimes fail.
Look, I’m as sick as the next film critic that every kids’ movie has to be about saving the world or keeping some parents from getting a divorce, but even I need more than a dirt-clod fight.
Yes, yes, I get it: it’s supposed to be told from the point-of-view of a nine year-old boy, and nine year-old boys love dirt-clod fights. That’s why the movie doesn’t tell us if the land is “real” or imagined: a nine year-old boy doesn’t know the difference.
But if the movie is told from that point-of-view, why do all the monsters talk like neurotic, ironic twentysomethings?
Almost everything about this film just seemed off to me, like it was either sloppy writing or made to be deliberately obtuse.
Here’s the thing: Where the Wild Things Are is a classic children’s book about an angry kid who learns that he can control his own anger — that his anger isn’t an out-of-control “wild” monster that controls him. The book is sophisticated and definitely works on an “adult” level, but it’s so brilliant because, in its deceptive simplicity, it also works on a “kid” level.
Where the Wild Things Are, the movie, doesn’t even try to work on a “kid” level. I suspect there’s going to be a whole lot of bored kids in theaters this weekend, and a lot of pissed-off parents.
There’s a whole genre of brilliant, sophisticated, but subversive fantasy children’s movies that went on to find widespread success: Time Bandits, Toy Story, Babe, and even Beauty and the Beast, to name just a very few.
Why can these movies be appreciated by the “unthinking” masses, but also by film aficionados looking for multiple layers and deeper meanings? Because first and foremost, they take their characters, and their story, seriously.
I never felt that Where the Wild Things Are did. It seemed to me that, first and foremost, the filmmaker wanted to make a POINT about how childhood is “confusing,” to show how clever and avant garde he is — “Look, I don’t need to have a ‘plot’!” — or maybe just to show us some (admittedly) cool film imagery.
Basically, this is a movie for Spike Jonze and all his film school friends.
Which is fine for an indie or arthouse film, but this is a $80 million studio film that’s being heavily marketed to mainstream audiences.
There is definitely a small minority of folks who will love this movie, in spite of its slow pace and the non-narrative (or maybe because of it, because they like rule-breaking for rule-breaking’s sake).
And apparently many of these folks are film critics.
These folks will all say I missed the point of Where the Wild Things Are, that we’re sometimes supposed to be confused and frustrated and bored, because the character is confused and frustrated and bored. That there’s no real point because life has no real point.
Or maybe they won’t be bored at all — they’ll be satisfied by the non-plot and the ironic monsters. They’ll say to me, “The movie is pure emotion put on film.” Or, “It seems to be about nothing, but it’s really about everything!”
I can’t say these folks are wrong, because that’s their opinion. More power to ‘em.
All I can say is that I was mostly either bored or annoyed with Where the Wild Things Are, and it seemed like most of the preview audience I saw it with thought that too.