It seems like a no-brainer. Where the Wild Things Are is based on a beloved children's book about a rambunctious boy's overactive imagination. It has oversized creatures made with Muppet technology. It was directed by a man who goes by the whimsical pseudonym Spike Jonze. It has the family-friendly PG rating. What a delightful kids movie it will be!
Yet as the film itself teaches us, life is often more complicated than that. The movie has elements that might be scary for young children, and it's not structured like a traditional kids' movie. Its style and tone are more like an indie drama, like something that would play at Sundance and star Patricia Clarkson. The title characters are a bit morose, and they sit around talking about their feelings a lot. And this is a movie for children??
Well, that's the question. Is it for children? The general consensus among critics last week (myself included) was that it's a movie for adults about childhood. In the run-up to the film's release, that was the main topic of discussion, egged on by Maurice Sendak's assertion that if parents think the film might be too scary, "I would tell them to go to hell." His point was that yeah, it's kind of scary -- and so what? Lots of children's movies are scary, and kids still turn out OK.
You can't really blame parents for not knowing that the film might be too intense for the wee ones. There is that PG rating, after all, and the MPAA's explanation -- "for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language" -- is unhelpfully vague, as usual. Shrek the Third was PG for similar reasons ("some crude humor, suggestive content and swashbuckling action"), and no one seemed to think twice about taking their kids to that. Besides, as anyone who has been to an R-rated movie with 8-year-olds in the audience can tell you, plenty of parents don't give the question much thought anyway.
So it's heartening to realize that in this case, many parents did pay attention to the numerous resources available to them in determining whether to take their kids to Wild Things. The question of appropriateness almost turned out to be a moot point: According to the Associated Press, parents with children made up just 27% of the film's opening-weekend audience. Jonze set out to make a movie about children for adults, and that's largely who saw it.
The reaction from parents whose children watched the movie with them has been mixed. One dad reports that two of his 7 year olds (he has twins, I guess?) wound up in tears, and that he saw other parents consoling their children afterward. A mom says her 4-year-old son hated it and her 5 year old seemed to pick up on the examples of bad behavior. But another mom says her 5-year-old boy loved everything about it while her 15 year old found it boring and didn't like how different it was from the book. (A fanboy in the making!)
These anecdotal reports show what everyone knows anyway: that every kid is different. We all have stories from our childhood about finding "scary" movies charming while being terrified of Dumbo, or something. It's up to the individual parents to determine what will be appropriate for their particular children, and even then they're only guessing. Where the Wild Things Are, by the director's own admission, wasn't made with kids in mind as the primary audience, so it's not a failing of the film if it doesn't appeal to them. (That would be a failing of Warner Bros.' marketing department, which insisted on advertising it to them.) As for whether to take your own wild things to see it? That's up to you.
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Eric D. Snider (website) knows where the wild things are, but he won't tell you.