To say that Where the Wild Things Are came to the box office with issues is putting it mildly. There were disgruntled devotees of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, who couldn’t fathom the idea of their masterpiece being turned into a movie by a hipster director best known for idiosyncratic, cultish films ( Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). There were reports of feuds between Warner Bros. and that director, Spike Jonze. Tales of disastrous screenings that terrified children; massive re-shoots; and a whopping, $80 million budget.
But that was just the film’s baggage. Now that it’s been released, everyone else’s is spilling out, stirring up a debate that is making Where the Wild Things Are—which over the weekend beat the odds and grossed an impressive $32 million—the most divisive film of the year.
People’s reactions “come down to how much therapy they’ve had,” said Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly’s film critic.
Audiences—and critics—either love or hate, and no one is doing either one quietly, perhaps because no one seems to be able to just see the movie. Instead, it’s become a sort of Rorschach Test that tells us who we are—damaged from childhood? A snide Gen Xer? A self-hating Baby Boomer? A good parent? A Dave Eggers refusenik?
The answers to all of the above lie, somehow, in a film in which big, furry monsters bang around a forest, build forts, and howl.
Not since the Lost in Translation debate—and, before that, Magnolia—has a film inspired so much fuming and fawning, and not just in hoodie havens like Williamsburg and Silver Lake.
On Metacritic.com, which scores films based on critics’ reviews, Where the Wild Things Are averaged an OK score of 71. But the reviews themselves show a polarizing spread. Six reviews—from major publications, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Rolling Stone—gave the film a perfect 100. But the film’s low grades (40-60 range) were equally pedigreed: The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate.com.
The divide is epitomized in a video chat posted on the Entertainment Weekly Web site. Film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum begins by launching into a love letter to the film (she gave the film an “A” in her written review, calling it “a breathtaking act of artistic transubstantiation” and “one of the year’s best”). Sitting across from her, critic Owen Gleiberman listens politely until she finishes gushing, then says bluntly: “Well, I think we saw two different movies.”
As Gleiberman revs up his assault—basically, he thinks things go downhill once Max gets to the island and joins up with the wild things, which he calls “squabbling hippies…trying to indoctrinate Max into some avant-garde theater company led by Julie Taymor”—Schwarzbaum holds it together. But underneath her taut smile, she looks ready to blow.
When I talked to Schwarzbaum, she said the response she’s gotten from readers has been equally at odds—“People loved it and they wept, or they said it was terrible”—and acknowledged that where the wildest passions came from, was in reading the film’s subtext.
“I’m fascinated by this interpretation of the movie as, you know, they’re all existential hippies, they’re not really characters, they’re bringing us to some sad place of psychotherapy.”
People’s reactions “come down to how much therapy they’ve had,” she said, only half joking.
“There is definitely something to—How do you read your life into this movie?” said MovieCityNews.com editor David Poland, who was inspired to write a 1,861-word blog post defending Wild Things (which he calls “one of the most misunderstood films of the year”), after seeing the film twice. It was on the second viewing that Poland said the film clicked for him, and when he understood what the movie was really about: divorce.
“The second time, it laid itself out for me overtly,” Poland said. “Because it’s a big ball of candy, it’s so visually dense. That’s overwhelming to your senses. To sit there and try to look at the subtext in the first viewing is impossible.”
As a champion of the film, Poland feels he’s being crowded out by Wild Things haters, who, he said, “have worked harder to try to smash it—they feel this need to try and kill it.”
The reasons are myriad. There are the Sendak purists. The protective parents who feel the film is too dark. The over-twenty-something crowd who, once bedazzled by Jonze’s quirkiness, now find it self-indulgent and pompous. And don’t get them started on Eggers.
“There’s definitely an Eggers thing, more than Spike Jonze” Poland said. “It’s those same people who lined up to hate it. Because it’s Dave Eggers, they have to tear down what they build up.”
(This same group is gathering ammunition for another member of the Cool Kids tribe: Wes Anderson, whose upcoming film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, is already sparking heated debate.)
Then there are critics, like Slate’s Dana Stevens, who just found it dull. “If I avoid taking my 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter to this movie, it won’t be because the wild things would scare her,” Stevens wrote. “It’ll be because their endless therapeutic workshopping would bore her stiff.”
Joe Morgenstern, who gave Wild Things an exceedingly glowing review in the Wall Street Journal (“As wish-fulfillments go, this is a movie lover’s dream”), couldn’t disagree more. Yet he even said that as he wrote his review, he knew he would have detractors.
“Of course, I worried about writing a rave review, and that I would go to bed, and wake up and realize, what do you know, I’ve made a complete fool of myself,” he said in an interview Monday. “Finally, I said, ‘Screw it. That’s who I am. That’s what I have to do!”
As Schwarzbaum pointed out, discussion and debate are ultimately positive, both for a film, and for the film community at large, which is still recovering from a summer of Transformers 2 and G-Force.
“Argument is good,” Schwarzbaum said, adding that Wild Things “touches people in wild places. It’s much better than the Balloon Boy.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.