I can’t help but remember how Where the Wild Things Are had the potential to be the perfect film.
An stunningly ambitious attempt to extrapolate a full, sprawling film out of the ten sentences of a children’s book. A couple of those sorts of people whose next work is always exciting by virtue of existing – in this case, Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, novelist and music-video director – saying all the right, interesting things. Wanting to make a movie about the truth of childhood, and the full confusing spectrum of emotions it contains. Also, big furry monsters.
It was one of those projects you discover late at night on the internet, and spend hours reading about, and sigh, imagining what would happen if it ever actually came out.
And then a trailer came out, fusing beautiful images with a version of The Arcade Fire’s Wake Up that raised that lump in my throat. Then a soundtrack, bringing Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs into the mix. It could only be the perfect film, right?
Watching Where The Wild Things Are at last was one of the worst cinematic experiences of my life. It was my 21st birthday, in one of the coldest rooms in which I’ve ever had the misfortune to spend two hours. The clues were all there as the first trailer played. Backwards. During the film, the picture would flicker, the soundtrack occasionally replaced with a guttural, mechanical screech. Midway through, the screen onto which the film was being wonkily projected appeared to start melting…
And I faced the truth that every pop super-group ever has gone of its way to teach us: that things are so very often less than the sum of their fascinating parts. Where The Wild Things Are looked like it had a shot at being my favourite film. But this is a list, and – sorry to say – we’re not at #1 yet. It managed to make it all the way to 48…
On the other hand, this is my 48th favourite film. Of all time. (Fact.) So far, it’s the one that’s inspired me to write the most, my feverish scribblings accompanied by that brittle soundtrack. It’s how the whole film looks so beautifully crafted, in the way you want to take almost any frame and put it on your wall. It’s the dusty palette that makes the film look a little like it was found tucked down the backseat, without having to rely on the ‘drained of colour’ brown we videogame fans are so familiar with these days.
And it really does expands the scope of Maurice Sendak’s book infinitely, adapting the spirit that a young Eggers and Jonze clearly found in it rather than being slavishly true to its plot or images. What it does take from the book is a sort of Wizard of Oz structure, with the first fifteen minutes showing us Max’s troubled home-life, before we entering the fantasy world where those titular wild things are. It may or may not be real, and events from the ‘real’ world recur in this fantastic land of monsters.
But it’s much more subtle than recasting characters as fantastical versions of themselves, turning the evil old lady up the road into a witch and then promptly squashing her. It’s little visual cues, emotional echoes. I only just noticed the origins of Max’s robot dance, which makes a pivotal plot point late in the film, in the opening. That’s a failing of the film, really, as it robs the second moment of a lot of its poignancy and meaning, but it also feels like the film is rewarding you for watching it again.
It’s about exploring the full range of emotions, chasing them into the darkest crevices. It’s about telling stories, and about metaphor. It’s about a bunch of silly little moments tied together as flimsily as Sendak did in the first place, in those couple of dozen pages… It’s not an easy film, and it manages to make the 90 minutes that it lasts feel somehow much longer. Being a children’s film marketed to the widest possible audience, that damned it. Being a film I felt like I’d dreamt up in the first place, one late night … that was perfect.