Where the Wild Things Are: A Review and Recollection

The imagination of youth knows no boundaries.

Purple cows co-exist peacefully alongside orange trees while a benevolent sun literally smiles down on all below in a child’s drawing.  A blanket over a table with a chair turned on its side can be a fort or the Millennium Falcon.  The weeds that grow in your backyard are monstrous Triffids that only you can hack down with your mighty sword that to everyone else looks like a rusted metal pipe. 

As you grow older you have your imagination corralled by rules and language.  The 26 letters that make up the English alphabet have produced beautiful poetry and imagery but for a child these are the first steps towards having your ideas and thought processes brought into step with the rest of the world.  I would say one of the genuinely fascinating aspects to having a baby is the regular conversation they will hold with you without knowing a single word.  You will have no idea of what the other is talking about but you will both walk/crawl away from the other feeling pretty darn good about yourself.

Growing up is frustrating.  The more rules you learn the more your imagination diminishes.  Society dictates what is acceptable behaviour and what is definitely frowned upon.  The boy who likes to sing while dancing alone in the playground will soon find he’s the subject of much ridicule.  The girl who likes to scream at the top of her lungs with excitement while playing a game will be told in no uncertain way that this is not how a young lady behaves.  The life of discovery is reduced to sitting in rooms with people who are complete strangers preparing you for the journey ahead.  Fingers crossed you have a teacher that understands how important their job is because if not bad habits will be ingrained for the rest of your life whether you realise it or not.

Soon your favourite games to play are not accepted by the majority so you find yourself playing them alone.  Alone you ride your pushbike around the house, pretending that you’re Steve McQueen being chased by imaginary Nazis in their sleek grey suits.  Your pushbike hums with the power of a World War Two motorbike and that tiny jump off a tiny dirt hill takes you well over the barbed wire fence and into the freedom of Switzerland.  In one fell swoop you have not only escaped the bad guys but you have also re-written the ending to one of the greatest movies ever made.  And it is fine because in your world there are only the rules you need to survive and they don’t impinge upon any other person’s worldview.

You progress through school and you learn more words and the way those words can be used.  For every word you learn like “breathe”, “oxygen” and “tale” you are slipped an “idiot”, “fuck” and “moron”.  Suddenly the world you live in is set upon by all manner of forces; some believing they are good while some are obviously bad but all helping to reign in your imaginary world that you once could escape to.  The colour drains and flattens.  Before you blink you’re putting your toys away and embracing being a teenager, sneering back at your past wishing you could hide it away unless someone should stumble upon it and be able to use it as a weapon in whatever possible battle is ahead.

Finally you’re an adult, you’re sent off to university or work and it is time to be a grown up.  Have kids.  Buy a house.  Step in line.  March one, two, one, two, one, two. This is the music you can enjoy.  These are the movies you will see.  Those people there are your friends.  Support your children.  And when it is time to die embrace the belief you have chosen to believe and do us all a favour and don’t make too much of a fuss, you’ll upset those of us left behind.

Last night I saw the preview of “Where the Wild Things Are” at the cinema.  I really cannot fault it in anyway but I guess this is a movie that appeals directly to everything I hold dear.  The book was such a favourite when growing up (that along with Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax”) and the movie embraced everything that makes the original source so magical. 

There have been suggestions that the character of Max is not “nice” enough.  Fuck that.  Have you read the original book?  Max is out of control nailing tied up cloth to a wall, chasing the family dog and berating his Mum when she attempts to reprimand him.  He is pretty much the poster child for my argument against children.  (I am way too selfish to ever have children…a realisation that I have only come to recently.  I say that with no pride, just as honestly as I can.)

Then with the magic of his unfettered mind he travels to another world where he is the King of the Wild Things, nightmarish characters who bound and tower over Max.  He stays there and rules over them for how long?  A day?  A month?  A year?  Then when he is done he sails home to his house to find his supper waiting for him.  It is a simple story that has much to say about the breadth and power of imagination as it does about loneliness and love.

The movie understands what makes the book work.  It doesn’t attempt to rewrite the motivation for Max.  We see that life is lonely.  We see that life has an unknowable toughness to it as his mother is quite clearly attempting to keep their world safe and not let her son know.  When we see Max being naughty he is trying to fathom the world he lives in and sometimes to understand we must act upon our destructive impulses.  He is loud.  He is impulsive.  And through wide sweeps of imagery and action we understand more about this boy than if we had some poorly written character attempt to explain it to us through some faux conversation placed there for the regular idiot movie goer. 

Amongst the Wild Things Max comes across his personality made physical.  Judith represents his narky and aggressive side.  The bull his loner side.  And Carol his id, his most attractive and monstrous of new friends.  Without beating us over the head with dull movie making techniques, Spike Jonze and Dave Eggars have crafted a tale that is beautiful and haunting, that taps into a world you thought long gone and forces you to reflect on your past.  If you allow the movie to not only tell a tale but also to be a conduit to your own childhood it can at times take your breath away.  This movie avoids the typical structure of most films made today by dispensing with the Joseph Campbell structure that has become so prevalent since George Lucas revealed the tools he used for writing the original Star Wars trilogy.  This movie is a dream and we don’t always wake from dreams better or worst people.  We just wake and if we’re lucky enough to remember anything from our slumber it will amuse us up until the moment it is lost in the machinations of the day.  This is more “Cohen brothers for tykes” than Dreamworks statement of individuality.

When Max leaves the Wild Things; for he surely he cannot stay amongst these creatures forever; there are no saccharine speeches, no obvious statements of love that are designed to manufacture a response where poor story telling has failed.  Instead the Wild Things wail for their lost king and Max responds alike knowing he probably will not return to this magical land where ruled for a time.  It is one of the most powerful images I have seen in cinema for a long time and I cannot stop thinking about it…even if I wanted to.
“Where the Wild Things” has invoked a sense of wistfulness I have not experienced in a long time.  I long to return to those days where fighting Triffids and Nazis were all part of a long day’s work.  It has made me dream of words that don’t exist and long to destroy my life so I can build a new fort…or Millennium Falcon…or whatever I feel like because this is my world, a colourful breathing place full of possibility.

I hope you get as much out of this movie as I did.

Justin Hamilton

Fitzroy North

November 27th 2009

P. S.  I’ve decided to run our first competition here.  Write a one-paragraph recollection of your favourite childhood memory and email it to me at justin@justinhamilton.com.au.  It can be a toy, a game you played or a friend you had.  I don’t mind what it is but write with passion and love and not only will I post the winner here next week but I will also send you a prize no matter where you live.  The competition closes next Tuesday, the 1st of December by 12pm and is open to everyone except for Wayne Carey.  I have no interest in anything that man has to say.   And while you’re at it sign up to our membership so you will be alerted of giveaways etc for next year’s comedy festivals and fringes.