Childhood Ends in Phases- Where the Wild Things Are

You may not always be cognizant of a childhood phase ending, because they all happen in such different ways.   You may only notice in retrospect that your toddler didn’t turn around to see if you if there, or that your seven year old didn’t need to say goodnight to both parents last night.   Some events that signal a new era for your offspring may loom large, like a religious ritual or a sporting event where they have an opportunity to stand up and show the world what they’re made of.   During these, we are armed with cameras, and emissaries who will pay attention and help us recall the event in granular (if not contested) detail over the following years.

But more rare is the moment where you are literally in-the-moment.  You can see and you can feel, and in some cases, even share the feeling of throwing off the shackles of a previous small world and standing one level more erect as they enter the next one.    This happened to me during last night’s viewing of  the 2009 film Where the Wild Things Are.

I had heard about the film previously, with the warning that it “was not a children’s film,” and even though I was not sure what that meant, my daughter and I decided that would be good to watch.  Having been brought slowly up to speed on the more aggressive, and somewhat frightening world of new children’s films through Harry Potter, Star Wars and even the superheroes are so aggressive-they’re-boring-genre of Captain America: Winter Soldier, I figured she was ready.   After all, we’d been reduced to tears frequently, regularly, and expectedly by Pixar films (except the dread Cars series) and most recently Into the Woods and all the time by our obsession with Hamilton.

But we were not ready for Where the Wild Things Are.  I didn’t know it was going to signal the end of my daughter’s childhood and that we would all be brought into a new and higher level of emotional reality as a result of seeing it.  (Obviously, I don’t expect that every family or even any reader will have the same experience).  Not surprisingly, the film has the look and feel of a music video (where director Spike Jonze got his start), but its emotional grip began almost instantly, unremittingly, and grew increasingly tight.  It felt like Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock had guided Todd Solonz on how to make a Pixar film.  After the first 10 minutes or so, if you can soldier through it, the movie really settles into its 30,000 foot flight.   I don’t believe in spoilers or long plot descriptions, so I won’t engage in either here.

The film does travel through the very powerful world of a teen’s emotions, and delivers a more visceral, frightening and roller-coastery take on them than the brilliant Inside Out, though their approach and emotional construct are very different.   WTWTA brilliantly brings to life the frustrations and the confusing near-paralysis of a  growing child’s frequent, combustible, interior collision of opposites: desire and disdain,  following and leading, belonging and independence. Though little is said about it, the movie pegs Max a year or so post-divorce, where a keen emptiness fills the house’s emotional space.  It is through this backdrop that the film also tackles the painful examination of one’s abilities compared to their plans, one’s need to believe in the face of constant disappointment, and the hardest realization of all— that being part of something, like a family, is hard.

By the end of the exhausting, but ultimately satisfying film, we had all lost a good deal of water weight from crying so hard into our mochis (vanilla, red bean and mango).  There were a few laughs, and some heartbreaking visuals that absolutely imprinted themselves on me.  Though its visual language is completely different from the book, you can understand that they are related, and very closely, at all times.  You can tell the film and its creators are mindful of ‘journey’ movies such as The Wizard of Oz, where known characters are represented by new, unknown characters.

Despite the number of knockout punches it landed on the jaw,  like any good cartoon, it delivered a great deal of its most effective punches subversively, leaving us to ponder the meaning of the character’s actions, thoughts and responses long after the final credits rolled.    It’s amazing that Spike Jonze pulled it off (even with the help of Dave Eggers and Maurice Sendak) because we can all cite terrible movies made from beloved books of all genres.   And children’s books are most challenging, as they frequently only offer a 16-page glimpse into a world, rather than a fully realized version. Of special note is James Gandolfini’s performance, which I thought at first, might take me out of the film, because of his Tony Soprano-ism (and heavy breathing).  It really is note perfect, and of course his death simply deepened my feelings about the film.

Though today in nearly every observable way is just like yesterday, there is no doubt we began it from a higher emotional plane, even facing a new and more adult world, and even as we exclaimed “let the wild rumpus begin.”