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Where The Wild Things Are (2009) -vs- The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

A young Yalie of my acquaintance wrote me an enthusiastic email, stating with the confidence only a young Yalie could muster, “I left the theater utterly awed, and somewhat reassured that there are still filmmakers that can really capture the MAGIC that movies are capable of. This may be overdoing it but I think that this movie is going to eventually be considered this generation’s Wizard of Oz.”

At first, I thought his claim a bit of an overreach, but I’m going to take his
appraisal seriously. A battle of the titans to be sure. Seventy years apart and technically perfect, neither effort is likely to be bested any time soon. Max versus Dorothy. Wolf Suit versus Ruby Slippers. Icon versus Icon.

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The Challenger

Spike Jonze gets a lot of things right, wild and otherwise, in this elegant, spare and elegiac adaptation of the Maurice Sendak classic, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Jonze adds no unnecessary detail, no real linear narrative or cumbersome plot, and Max Records’ Max expresses something quite rare and eloquent about the loneliness, sadness and disappointments of childhood (and adulthood). Being human isn’t for sissies. These wild things are more than creatures of Max’s imagination; they are projected parts of his own psyche echoing his sometimes inaccurately perceived daily world, giant toys playing with him, working things out with the carefully observed and recalled rhythm of imaginative play. The wild things bash around their boy’s paradise, acting out their hurt feelings and angers and petty grievances with unexpected violence, unprovoked terror, and wordless rage, interspersed with the sweetest and most random acts of kindness and love. Max sails away from his home where he is largely ignored to a world where attention is paid, where his word is the rule, only to return home again across he dark sea. The film is absolutely stunning, adding up to more than the sum of its considerably exquisite parts, the kind of filmgoing experience that stays with you for a very long time.

Reviews are mysteriously mixed; children will find unexpected delights in this somewhat shaggy tale. The filmmakers trust the filmgoers to enjoy and interpret the wild things for themselves; they haven’t tied up any wild things in little life lesson ribbons, nothing is prettified or glossed over or overly simplified. This is an art film for children. For anyone who ever was a child. Go. Open your mind and your heart and your eyes to the wonders on the screen and allow them to haunt your dreams and waking life.

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The Defending Champion

Everything went right with this one. As a child, I watched “The Wizard of Oz” once a year on television, promising myself that when I grew up, I would somehow procure a copy and a movie projector so I could show it on demand to my children. Technology complied with this most heartfelt wish; my two daughters watched the VHS copy daily for years, both wearing out their red glitter shoes and obsessing to a degree I couldn’t have foreseen. Young Dorothy’s longings for something better than home still resonate; her odyssey takes on the power of myth.

The Scorecard

Both films adapt difficult and brilliant works of children’s literature and manage to exceed any expectations, evoking and exploring themes only hinted at in the original texts. Both films achieve a technical excellence and rare beauty that thrills and ignites our passion for storytelling on the silver screen. Both films accurately capture the complicated and often overlooked dark sides of childhood; adults see what they want to see and recall what they want to recall. Children can seem to them simplified little people, easy to control. Children feel their feelings deeply and powerfully though; the less they are seen, the more powerfully they ache to be seen clearly. Attention deficit is the usual diagnosis when children misbehave; children want to be seen and heard and attended.

Dorothy’s longings take on a simple, almost mathematically Freudian shape. All her nemeses and friends have correlations in her dream world; this conceit is unique to the film and improves on the book considerably. Once she is away, she longs for home as strongly as she longed to leave it. No matter that Oz is every little girl’s technicolor fantasy come true; the noplace-like-home lesson is simple and almost impossible for a child to grasp.

Max’s journey is messier and more ragtag; his paradise a muddy place with deserts and forests, sailboats, rough seas and giant twigs. Max’s wild things are complicated and mutable, changelings as volatile as he. This is no Freudian mathematical equation but a poetic and deeply felt one, dreamlike and vague and specific all at once. Where the Wild Things Are is a scary place; it’s everywhere. It’s inside you. It’s depressed and it’s mad and it’s delirious and deranged; it’s human and it’s monstrous. Perhaps my Yalie friend was right; Max might well be this generation’s Dorothy.

The Decision

Time will tell whether Max enchants generations to come. He certainly wowed me. Spike Jonze has crafted a masterpiece all right. For now though, I’m sticking with the classic Oz; I can’t imagine anyone watching Max every day for two years. That said, it’s a much closer decision than I ever had any right to expect. And that’s saying something. The Wizard of Oz. Period.

About Sherry Coben 77 Articles
A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.

6 Comments on Where The Wild Things Are (2009) -vs- The Wizard of Oz (1939)

  1. I don’t disagree with you. Still, I don’t think WTWTA’s actually the kind of classic that children will watch over and over for the next seven decades; one devoutly wishes that their parents might be inspired to give them a hug and to listen to them seriously and then send them outside for some non-cyber adventures. Perhaps it’s the kind of film that can kick a generation off their computers for at least some hours of daylight and dusk. One can only hope that someone will ride herd on the merchandising just a little; I’d hate to imagine a world glutted, Oz-style, with every manner of collectible crap.

  2. OZ is great and for sure, a classic. But nostalgia aside, WTWTA takes the psychology of children that much more seriously – the beauty, heartache, adventure, fear, confusion, all those emotions that can be so consuming and yet happen almost simultaneously. And Spike Jonze not only contemplates those ideas, but gives them form. The film is a beautiful and wonderfully messy thing.
    I say Where The Wild Things Are every day.

  3. Thank you. The locations are absolutely stunning, and you may take credit for that.

  4. Oz: kid-tested, mom-approved. Go, Eli.

  5. Great review (as usual) Sherry. I am now looking forward to the Australian release of WTWTA later this year!!

  6. Well written! I have to agree with you, though both imaginations and their respective journeys are pretty fantastic.

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