There are two kinds of entertainment for children. There’s the kind that is unapologetically for children. “Barney & Friends” is a perfect example. Smiling, happy, clap- and sing-along, broad as a barn — this is why kids love it and adults hate it.
There’s another kind that pitches at two levels, to adults and children. This is both commonsensical — how often are we told as young parents that if we must allow our kids to watch TV, we must always, always watch it with them — and sort of icky. For one thing, it’s very difficult to make a TV show, stage production or film that will engage both audiences equally. “Sesame Street” tries it, mostly with the guest shots of live people, and of course “Put Down the Duckie” is the swing jazz standard Louis Armstrong didn’t live to cover. The hideous “Rugrats” did it constantly, never well and frequently horribly. (I never knew what was more offensive, that Phil and Lil’s mother was a lesbian with a husband/beard, or that this is what the producers thought those crazy women’s libbers were all about.) “Teletubbies” supposedly had a big following among stoner/ravers, who found its gentle pace and trippy alterna-world a fun place to goof around in when coming down from a long evening of dance and Ecstasy.
The medium that comes closest is literature, and maybe this is why it’s noblest of all. Language is language, and just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s simplistic. Certain children’s books become classics because parents enjoy them as much as their children do, and look forward to rereading them when the roles are switched. Which might be why “Where the Wild Things Are,” the movie, worked so well for me, and might not. This really isn’t a children’s movie; Kate, at nearly 13, is about the bottom end of the demographic. It might be that Maurice Sendak didn’t even write a children’s book. Or it might be that one thing movies do that books can’t is add an element of kinetic imagination, and this is just one adult’s version of it. Whatever it is, it worked pretty well.
I can’t really improve on the pros here. Joe Morganstern loved it and Roger Ebert loved it a little less, but I have to side with Morganstern, who notes that where it breaks loose is where director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers take the biggest risks. There’s no scene with owls on the beach in the book, but there is in the movie, and it works. The wild things have a lot more dialogue in the movie than in the book, but here you will get the sense, as you don’t in the book, that they really are based on Sendak-the-boy’s cheek-pinching adult relatives. (Catherine O’Hara, national treasure, plays one, and you don’t need to know much more than that.)
“Where the Wild Things Are” is a dream story, and as in dreams, all the characters are some version of Max, the boy in the wolf suit at the center of the story, and all the action is a refraction of what’s going on in his life. Max is an angry boy, remember; he’s all id, or mostly id, or at least he has id issues. (Whatever.) James Gandolfini’s wild thing is his closest doppelganger, and he has all of Max’s issues. (“He’s not sleeping in our pile!” will resonate with any single parent who’s ever grappled with the problem of the new boyfriend or girlfriend.)
I wondered how Jonze would handle the farewell, when Max makes his way back home, back from anger, back from Idville, back to civilization (place and process). I was dreading a long, drawn-out “Wizard of Oz” piece, with speeches. It didn’t go that way at all. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but: It’s perfect.
OK, then. This is not Review Week here at NN.C, only me with a bad cold, sleeping late, feeling like crap. No bloggage, because I’ve fallen so terribly behind on everything. But, as yesterday, a few supplemental pieces for extra credit:
Ernest and Bertram, the last word on Sesame Street’s central question:
One of Jim at Sweet Juniper’s occasional series on terrifying children’s books, in this case Judith Vigna’s classic “I Wish Daddy Didn’t Drink So Much.”
Back to bed for me.