My parents bought me plenty of books as a child, and thinking back on it now, a lot of them — “Gerald McBoing Boing,” “Harold and the Purple Crayon” or “A Wrinkle In Time” — were pretty strange. (That might explain a few things.) But one book I never got was Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are.”
For that secret pleasure, I would cross the street to my friend’s house, where we’d lie on the floor in his den and flip through its pages. Sendak’s shadowy jungle dreamworld of comically grotesque beasts was both disturbing and irresistible, like a nightmare that wasn’t scary. (Years later I would recognize that same feeling while watching “Eraserhead.”)
Perhaps it was just the Minotaur, but my young mind formed a connection between Sendak’s picture book and Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” a print of which hung in my friend’s den. I was more right than I knew; they were both expressions of a modern, post-Freudian conception of art, linked to nonrational representations of emotional states.
Picasso had attempted to express the chaos and terror of a fascist atrocity, and fascism — at least as psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich views it — springs in part from childhood repression of rebellious and sexual urges by that “authoritarian” institution, the family. Then there’s “Wild Things,” which is all about those childhood urges, before control and order stamp themselves on our consciousness.
Sendak imagines a “wild” boy, Max, who throws a tantrum and is sent to his room without dinner as punishment. Thus imprisoned, he imagines a land of monsters where he rules as king through the power of his mesmerizing gaze, eventually fleeing before he is consumed by his own creations. (Sendak, an American Jew whose family hailed from Poland, would later pen “In The Night Kitchen,” which had Hitler-mustachioed cooks trying to bake a little boy in their ovens.)
Not to say that “Wild Things” was about fascism . . . but who’s to say that it wasn’t? Sendak’s book was a slight one — it only contains 10 sentences — yet its strength was its open, allusive nature, glimpsing the feral side of childhood. It struck a chord, but you couldn’t really put your finger on why. Of course, some people hate it for that same reason.
Some 46 years after its publication, Sendak’s book comes to the screen in the hands of Spike Jonze, a friend of the author who is no stranger to the surreal (“Being John Malkovich”). This is a horribly misguided film, though, which proceeds to strip away all the mystery of the book and bludgeon us with a 100-minute parable on “acting out.”
Jonze starts off interestingly, with Max (Max Records) — product of a broken home — throwing a seriously crazed tantrum that culminates in him biting his mother (Catherine Keener). In real life, he’d be prescribed Ritalin, end of story. But in the film, he runs away into a dark forest, and emerges a while later on the island of monsters (who are voiced by James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker and Catherine O’Hara).
It’s here the film starts to fall apart. For starters, the dark forbidding jungle of Sendak’s creation is mostly gone, replaced by blue skies and Jonze’s favorite stylistic fetish, the sun-flared lens. More problematic is the bunch of monsters who stomp around doing what monsters do . . . you know, talk about their feelings all the time, like refugees from America’s Oprah Winfrey talk show. This self-obsessed navel-gazing should come as no surprise, given that the script is by Dave Eggers, author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” perhaps the bible of mopey confessional memoirs.
Jonze does capture the look of the monsters perfectly, and a fragile Karen O soundtrack certainly adds a naive and playful mood to the proceedings. But I’m sorry, any filmmaker who can spend 10 minutes of screen time on a dirt-clod fight (between giant goats and chickens) has way too much time on his hands.
“Where The Wild Things Are” is a film that would probably be a real goof if under the influence, but it’s practically unwatchable sober. If you get the urge to see people walking around in giant plush monster outfits, just YouTube an old episode of 1970s children’s TV show “H.R. Pufnstuf.”