Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are Really Screwed Up and Probably Should be Taking Meds

Last week, Michael and I took Madeline to see the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. I loved that book when I was Madeline’s age. The illustrations were fantastic, and I remember my stomach rumbling louder and louder with each passing page, as I longed for a day when a giant pancake would fall from the sky and destroy my school with its buttermilky goodness. Not surprisingly, the movie bore little resemblance to the beloved book by Judi and Ron Barrett, aside from a few enduring images of doughnuts rolling down the streets of Chewandswallow, and frightened citizens building makeshift sailboats out of PB&J sandwiches. But from the very first scene of the movie, none of the three of us cared that it was nothing like the book. Cloudy got it just right. It was hysterical, charming and smart, and featured some of the best voice acting since whatever the last Pixar joint was. The animation was kitschy and cute, and the main character, Flint Lockwood, was actually developed to the point where even parents would give a crap what happens to him in the end. Needless to say, we will be purchasing the DVD immediately after it comes out and will probably watch regardless of whether Madeline or Roan are sitting in the living room with us. Kind of like The Incredibles.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs had a trailer for Where the Wild Things Are (sic), the highly-anticipated adaptation of the children’s book by Maurice Sendak. “We gotta go see that,” I whispered to Madeline and Michael, who vehemently agreed. The trailer just looked so cool, in spite of the fact that hearing Tony Soprano’s voice coming from one of the monsters was slightly disturbing. It kind of had a Jim Henson, giant-Muppet-feeling about it that made me go all warm and gooey inside. I was so excited about taking Madeline to see it, in fact, that as soon as we got home from Cloudy, I text-messaged Madeline’s father and called dibs* on taking her to see it first.

The trailer music should have been my first warning. Arcade Fire with vocals by Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Uh oh. It had all of the sadness and depressing open chords of a Mazzy Star or Sparklehorse album without any of the ethereal beauty or pretty singing. I also should have heeded the second warning, which came in the form of James Gandolfini and his voice acting. Maurice Sendak’s characters should never sound like their next line is going to be, “Who ate all the gabagool?”

In spite of these immense red flags, the three of us went to a 6:30 showing, ignorantly blissful, and excited for a whimsical Monday night at the movies. How unsuspecting we were, as we munched our popcorn and watced trailers for the animated movies Planet 51 and Despicable Me. How we marveled, unknowing what was in store, as the movie opened with the adorable Max building a snow fort in his yard. But things quickly deteriorated from frivolous to fucked up when a snowball fight with his sister’s friends goes horrible wrong, and Max bawls when his fort is smashed and no one bothers to apologize. Later, Max has a complete freakout when his mother, who is clearly struggling just to keep her family afloat, dares to entertain the presence of a male figure in the house, which culminates in Max biting his mother on the shoulder and running away from home. And why? Because Max hates frozen corn! Wah!! Madeline, who was sitting between Michael and me, immediately broke down into tears.

Just like the book, Max hops onto an imaginary sailboat and heads off to Where the Wild Things Are (sic). Once he arrives, he finds Carol, the most recognizable of the monster crew from the book, ravaging his fellow monsters’ huts while having a hissy fit of his own. Carol threw about eight hissy fits throughout the course of the movie, and when he wasn’t busy doing that, he spent the rest of the movie acting like a moody, manipulative little bitch, prompting me to wonder if male monsters can suffer from PMS.

Not surprisingly, Max takes to Carol like flies to shit, and soon, the other monsters get jealous because King Max clearly plays favorites. Especially Judith, who eventually tells Max not to listen to her because she’s “kind of a downer.” Really, Judith? YOU’RE the downer in this movie? Frankly, I found Judith to be a breath of fresh air next to the duplicitous K.W., whiney Goatboy (did he even have a name?), pussy-whipped Ira, tag-along Douglas and the completely unsympathetic Carol. In fact, the only character I didn’t find loathsome was the silent, giant, bull-like monster that graces the cover of the original book. He finally spoke at the end, and said something completely forgettable, but I found his earlier quietness to be a nice change from the incessant kvetching of all the other malcontented monsters in the movie.

Every scenario that could have been whimsical played out to a horrible end. Goatboy gets injured during a playful dirt fight. Douglas gets his arm ripped off by Carol. Even the big, congenial monster pile has overtones of danger as Max comes within a hair’s breadth of getting crushed and smothered to death no less than half a dozen times. Meanwhile, Karen O’s strident and frigid vocals punctuated every depressing event until all of us sat stunned as Carol, upon discovering that Max isn’t a king and is “just Max,” which he says “isn’t very much at all, is it?”, runs to beach at the last minute to bid farewell to the little boy as he sails off home. As if to add insult to injury, Carol doesn’t even reach Max in time to make amends, or give him a hug goodbye, or blow him a kiss, or proclaim, “Peace out, bra!” Instead, the monsters mournfully howl their farewells to Max, as he drifts out to sea on his sailboat. Meanwhile, Madeline was a complete disaster in the seat next to me, bawling her poor little eyes out, confused how her beloved book became this abomination. What a kick in the balls.

Rarely has a movie that left me feeling so violated, so emotionally raped, I felt like I had just watched the Sesame Street cast reenact Sophie’s Choice. Madeline bounced back much faster than I did from the experience. She seemed fine this morning, as she happily ate her breakfast while watching Spongebob. I feel like I could use a little cold cereal and Spongebob therapy myself. I’m looking forward to the sequel, Where the Wild Things Are Chilling the Fuck Out and Not Acting Like Crazy Bitches For a Change.

*Calling dibs still works when you're a grown up and divorced. Even judges can’t dispute the dibs rule:
“But Your Honor! I called dibs on Christmas!”
“In that case, dibs granted.”


  1. I have to respectfully disagree - this is a movie that doesn't play cute or formulaic like cartoons like Meatballs or The Incredibles do. It’s not in 3-D, thank God, and it doesn’t patronize anyone. It’s scary and it speaks to kids and it spoke it me.

    I haven’t forgotten how terrified I used to get as a child, but the messages I got at that age just told me how I was too young/my anger was inappropriate/I should just bottle up all my confusions and hurt and accept my powerlessness.

    I can remember, very specifically, feeling like Max in the second grade. At recess, I threw a rock at a boy. Hard. From across the playground, it hit him in the head. Luckily he was okay, but all I remember about it is ending up in the principal’s office, confused, red-faced and shaking. If you asked me now why I did it, I’d say it was, of course, misplaced anger. I was an only child dealing with a dysfunctional alcoholic family. I was made to feel ashamed of myself at home and my mother frequently told me how worthless I was. But if you’d asked me then, in that principal’s office, why I’d done it, I would have probably said something akin to “I don’t like frozen corn,” as did Max in the movie.

    Where The Wild Things Are is in Max’s mind, and the monsters there are all part of him and what he’s dealing with. That’s why when the monsters talk, they say things the way a kid would say them. Max is battling with his inner demons in a profound way and through this movie, we get to bear witness to those confused, sacred places in a child’s mind and heart. Yes, it’s sad that Carol doesn’t make it in time to give Max that feel-good hug at the end. But that howl? That primal, moving sound? That was my kid’s favorite part of the movie. Because as a kid, more often than not, there are no words. But that howl was unmistakable. And, for me at least, it deftly moved into representing the difficult connection between parent and child.

    At the very last, when Max and his mother, after all is said and done, just stare into each other’s eyes? That was one of the most moving cinematic scenes I’ve ever seen. Two people, one adult, one child, trying to connect with each other when there is so much love and confusion and seemingly no words or actions to communicate it all…that scene laid me bare. There are people who say “this is not a kids movie at all.” To them I’d say, perhaps you don’t remember being a kid.

    (Jane Pennington)

  2. Sorry, Jane. I very much remember being a kid. And a kid very much like Max. And I get that all of the monsters were inside of Max's head. And I get everything you've said above. But I found every character deplorable and unsympathic. I hated the movie. I truly did. I'm not disputing whether or not it was a movie for kids. And as far as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was concerned, it didn't pander to anyone. Did you see it? I thought it was actually pretty funny and smart.

  3. Hi Kandy. Yeah I saw Meatballs. I found it cute but forgettable. As for Wild Things, I found it uncomfortable and unforgettable. There was lots not to like, I agree. What I liked was that, even as a kid--especially as a kid--turning inward would show me lots not to like, lots that was confusing and mean and deplorable. Over the years I made fewer and fewer explorations into those parts of myself because of how uncomfortable it is. I like that the movie took me back there and showed what I went through as a painful rite of growing up. Maurice Sendak has said that he hates people. As a fellow people-hater, this movie made me remember that my contempt of others started from getting to know myself.

  4. Yeah, I actually appreciate Maurice because of that. I've been a people-hater from way back, as you might have suspected! I guess I've spent a lot of time exploring the ugly aspects of myself. Now I just want to enjoy a movie every now again without having it become a heartwrenching experience. I've had enough of those and will no doubt have many more in real life.