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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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.
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.
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.