Maurice Sendak

Review: There’s a Mystery There – The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak

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Review: There’s a Mystery There – The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak

“Fantasy,” Maurice often declared, “is the best means children have for taming wild things.”

Where the Wild Things Are is the first exposure many people have to fantasy. The author and artist Maurice Sendak created this beloved children’s book, along with writing and illustrating twenty-one other works, creating the illustrations for almost a hundred more, and even providing the set design for several ballets and operas. Sendak is universally regarded as a genius…and yet his work can be so strange that it’s hard to describe exactly why people love it as much as they do.

Rolling Stone editor Jonathan Cott has compiled several years of his interviews with Sendak into the upcoming book, There’s a Mystery There – The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak, going into loving detail about Sendak’s childhood, his passions, and his influences. Cott also spends several chapters of interviewing prominent fans and friends of Sendak to take a deeper look into what the artist was trying to say, and what might have shaped a child of a Polish immigrant into one of the most famous artists of the century.

Read On

Where The Wild Things Are

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Occasionally I will mitigate opinions in this forum that I know will be unpopular when I am specifically writing a review of a film that I know carries a lot of emotional charge for people. In trying to be politic I try and soften the subjective emotions I felt to impart a sense of fairness. This is not one of those times. Where The Wild Things Are made me want to punch someone in the face. It’s not Max Records (Max) — he was given the material and he sold it to us with real heart and facility. It’s not the art department, whose awe-inspiring sets and puppet designs are what drew me to the film in the first place. It’s not the musicians, though they skirt the edge of over-preciousness, they never quite tip over the edge. It’s the words.

The Where The Wild Things Are film purports to celebrate the wild feeling of being nine, of being old enough for complex emotions but too young to deal with or communicate them properly. Instead, it feels like a paean to bratty self-absorption, to the same alienating je ne sais quois that occasionally makes me skim McSweeney’s articles or itches me under my skin like the musical Hair. It’s that kind of “every man is an island” lack of self-reflection that I seem to find most often in the films targeted to the Baby Boomer demographic. Not the people, per se, but the stuff “made for them.” It also gave me the same stomachache that I get reading about financial scandals, but I can’t figure that one out. It’s just a gut sense of being repelled, despite the aforementioned artistic triumphs.

Max’s acting out is almost immediately followed by touching remorse — he’s hardly a real problem child, and his home life seems pretty dang nice, even for being a single parent one. He runs away and ends up in the Where of the title, a land of immature, self-involved, bickering monsters who seem to need nothing other than air and each other to sustain themselves. Since he’s street-smarter than they are, Max becomes king. Prolix days pass and characters are annoying and tautological, sounding like these dopey 70’s TA for Tots books. Director Spike Jonze wrote the script with Dave Eggers, who flirts with excessive hipster preciousness quite a bit in his work,; here they try to create a rich and varied world from the unique drawings and brief sentences of Maurice Sendak’s beloved book. In doing so, it seemed that they filled the cracks with some personal baggage that hadn’t been fully sorted yet.

I applaud the film’s strong sense of tone and reality and beauty, I marvel at the puppet-acting and the CG enhancement of the monsters’ faces. These creature costumes were put through the ringer with lots of very physical demands put on them, in huge crashing movement and small, delicate acting moments as well. All the Wild Things’ movement seems very natural and fluid, there are no stiff Skeksis here. If the dialogue could bear the force of the script’s arbitrary mood swings and motivationless tantrums with the same durable pliability of the costumes, I wouldn’t have been so irked.

Jonze and Eggers are my contemporaries, growing up in the same Generation X atmosphere of upheaval and insecurity that marked our childhoods, but these guys seem like they are flirting with the same navel-gazing self-centeredness of their parents. Sure, we’ve all gotten old enough to be disillusioned by our once-seemingly-infallible caretakers. It’s how we deal/dealt with it that forms the core of our character as we grow past that, perhaps into the seemingly infallible caregivers of someone else. If these guys are questioning their own childhoods based on their own daddyhoods, it doesn’t belong here. Max appears to have learned no lesson, nor imparted one, except maybe “yep, life is the same all over so we should probably learn how to be responsible.” I found it to be crushingly slow to come to any sort of narrative interest, after being so circumspect with the creatures in the beginning (I was also reminded of Samuel Beckett, and I don’t mean that as a compliment).

Overall, besides the gorgeousness and the genuine actual performances of Max and the Wild Things, this movie drove me around the bend. Watch it on HBO for the glory of the captured image and save your money for greater things.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 10/16/09

Time in minutes 101

Director Spike Jonze

Studio Warner Brothers