Mark Harris on ''Where the Wild Things Are'' -- Spike Jonze's film is the rare movie worth brawling over

By Mark Harris
Updated October 30, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Mark Harris on ‘Where the Wild Things Are’

People disagree about movies all the time. But on those rare occasions when a difference of opinion morphs into an all-out fight, you should get your movie-loving butt to the multiplex fast, because films deep and rich enough to be worth brawling over are uncommon and exciting things. They’re risk takers in a terribly timid era of an already risk-averse industry. One of them, Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, is currently turning some people on, turning others off, and raising everybody’s temperatures. Those who love it relish Jonze’s melancholy, intuitively structured take on the interior life of a 9-year-old boy, not only because it defies decades of making children’s movies according to constrictive market-dictated formulas, but because it captures something vivid and true about childhood both from a kid’s-eye view and from the poignant perspective that comes only with time, distance, and adulthood. Those who dislike it see an unstructured shambles that damps down the joyous anarchy of Sendak’s classic with too much backstory, too much gloom, and an anchor of contemporary psychology that slights the wild in favor of the mild.

Although I’m proudly in the thumbs-way-up camp — I was jolted and excited and tremendously moved by Where the Wild Things Are — I’m also excited by the ferocity of the dispute. Visit and you can watch a video in which critics Lisa Schwarzbaum (fiercely pro) and Owen Gleiberman (coolly con) almost come to very polite blows about it — or just read the comments section of any movie blog if you’d like to see the politeness disappear. ”I took my three children to the movie and they ALL hated it. Case closed,” wrote one woman who, like too many people, believes her children are a focus group for the entire universe. ”Well, perhaps they’re morons,” replied another woman who, like too many people, believes that the Internet is primarily good for saying things you’d never say to someone’s face (or to someone who’s within slapping distance of your own).

Why the rage? I think it’s because, in a dispiritedly impersonal age of studio moviemaking, Where the Wild Things Are is a defiantly personal movie. Personal in that it represents the singular vision of a director who values his own instincts over the manicured approach that such an expensive undertaking usually requires, but also personal in the way it forces members of the audience to confront something intimate. Whether or not you like Jonze’s movie is going to have a lot to do with how you reconcile what you see on screen with your memories of the book, your memories of childhood, your dream life, the imaginations of your children if you have any, and your sense of what the most exhilarating and/or painful parts of being a kid were and are. That’s not stuff you’re going to have to deal with when you see Saw VI or Couples Retreat; it’s big, and it’s sensitive, and when somebody disagrees with you, it can feel like you’re being attacked. I’ve watched this movie’s fans dismiss its detractors as people who must have had lousy childhoods; in turn, those fans have been written off as sentimentalists who could only enjoy Wild Things Are because their taste is insufficiently rigorous.

Anyone who has ever liked a film that most people hated has learned the hard way that it’s much easier to tear a movie apart than to patiently explain why you loved it to people who didn’t; you can end up feeling mocked and belittled just because a film touched you. And anyone who has ever hated a movie that everyone else liked knows the unpleasant sensation of being glowered at as if only some deficiency in your brain, heart, or soul could have prevented you from grabbing a seat on the Happy Train. We’re about to begin the long march through Oscar season, a period that I fear will, this year, provide too few argument-starting films. When they come along, we should count ourselves lucky — and I’m tempted to say we should play nice, except that such a bland little homily could not be less in the spirit of Where the Wild Things Are. So instead I’ll say, go wild! Have the fight, and encourage everybody else to have the fight too, or Hollywood will continue on its dull path of making nothing worth fighting over.