25 Songs of Innocence & Experience: Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson and the Post-Boomer
By Michael Sicinski
Seen as entries onto this broad canvas, the stakes change significantly. While Fantastic Mr. Fox is by any reasonable measure the “better” film, it succeeds, in part, by sticking to Dahl’s world of wily animals, who are cute and funny, as compared to the revolting human farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (“one fat, one short, one lean…”). The adult Mr. and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), the lawyer Mr. Badger (Bill Murray), Fox’s opossum friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky)—all become “kids” because they’re implicitly pitted against human “adults.” This is by no means to sell Anderson’s film short: in fact, in addition to its ample formal and comedic virtues, Mr. Fox is also a remarkably anarchistic response to the global financial crisis. Spinning off from Dahl’s original tale, Anderson turns the farmers into captains of British agribusiness, and the animals who steal from them are moral heroes by any measure. Contrast this with Dahl’s rather discomfiting validation of Willy Wonka’s corporate chocolate manufacturing and his reliance on colonial Oompa-Loompa labour, a conundrum no film adaptation has been able to, er, outfox.; or, elsewhere in the kiddie-lit pantheon, with Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Don Bluth’s more mystical adaptation The Secret of NIMH (1982), in which the colony of intelligent rats and mice feel a moral charge not to steal from a farmer, but rather to enact the Plan (echoes of Lenin no doubt intentional) in order to generate electricity and a self-sufficient society. Lodged safely between the poles of individual enterprise and a nascent vulpine/mustelid socialist alliance, Mr. Fox is winning in large part because it is a Robin Hood story with a typically charming Clooney rogue at its centre. (What’s more, the underground lairs and warrens of Fox and his friends at last provide Anderson with an incontestably apposite rationale for the enclosed, in-frame-only movie worlds he prefers.)
But despite Anderson’s clear triumphs, I would argue that Where the Wild Things Are is the more radical of the two films, due to the fact that Jonze and (hipster alert!) co-screenwriter Dave Eggers chose to zero in on Sendak’s most enduring truth: childhood as a space of uncontrolled emotional danger, a makeshift field of creation and destruction. A handheld, white-and-beige prologue shows us the world of Max (Max Records, a preternaturally gifted first-time actor) from the low angles of the little brother, of the lonely child, of the kid learning to deal with divorce. The sequence in which Max lies under the desk while his mother (Catherine Keener) tries to complete some late work is spot-on and heartbreaking. After Max fails in his competition for his mother’s attention with her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), Max bites her and runs, then sails, off to the island of the Wild Things. While Jonze and Eggers have for the most part patterned their creature designs very closely after Sendak’s original renderings, on the narrative level they have quite explicitly made them monsters from Max’s id, an interpretive move for which they have taken a great deal of heat. (One notable critic referred to the film as “Where the Emo Things Are.”)
But look more closely, and it’s evident that Wild Things is a film which not only explores a young boy’s subjectivity but takes it very seriously, regarding it with deep empathy yet refusing to treat it as sacrosanct. Following the post-boomer tendency to hold “childhood” as a suspended term, one with uncertain frontiers and semiotic contours yet to be defined, Wild Things populates Max’s new world (“you are the owner of this world….except for that…and that…”) with bizarre creatures themselves suspended between childhood and adulthood. That is, they embody Max’s “juvenile investigations” (to borrow Freud’s term) about the adult world—he knows Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and Ira (Forest Whitaker) are “in love,” but what does that mean beyond inseparability? And what does it mean that Carol (James Gandolfini) loves and misses K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), but that Max, “the king,” cannot repair their bond? Likewise, in terms of Jonze’s set design and mise en scène, Wild Things foregrounds things ramshackle and tentative. Most notably, the massive twig-fort resembles the architecture of Gaudí or Boullée from a distance, but up close is so porous as to essentially be all interior, a proper structural analogue for a purely psychological space.
It’s possible that one’s reaction to Wild Things may depend in part on one’s position relative to the question of divorce itself. Post-boomers who have had to steel themselves against the very experience they underwent may well find the film mawkish, whereas parents, identifying less with Max than with the desire to protect him, might come away from the film with somewhat different emotional centres having been activated. Max’s relationships with unstable Carol, paranoid Judith, or insecure Alexander (Paul Dano) can and will scan as too-convenient, even schematic Jungian gestures. However one’s scansion of the film is mitigated significantly if it is weighed against the daily observation of a living child’s development, wherein distinctions between peer-group struggles and the fitful formation of a coherent subjectivity are blurry at best. Every social interaction is always also a laboratory for the articulation of self—and that too, it seems to me, is “not just for kids.”
Despite its rather obvious missteps (the science teacher’s speech; Karen O’s too-cool-for-school soundtrack), Where the Wild Thing Are describes the complex and multi-directional arc of a young mind at work, embracing and then eventually shunning his own most destructive tendencies, only to discover that, in a kind of psychological catharsis of the sort that art therapists only dream of, every last bit of himself is completely lovable and worthy of acceptance. It may be pat or overly contrived; I don’t know. But as a member of the post-boomer generation and a struggling parent myself, I found the conclusion of Wild Things both tender and reassuring, since it spoke directly to the experience that we—Jonze, Anderson, all of us—have so clearly taken from our own childhoods. It is not within our power to reunite our parents, but with time and great difficulty, we can make ourselves whole. Whether that prepares us for bequeathing an entirely different set of lessons is harder to tell.
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