Every so often things happen in a way that they form a pattern—a pattern that makes you pull back a bit and look at something in a different way. This happened to me over the course of slightly less than a week. It started last Friday night when I ran into someone—an industry professional—outside the Fine Arts after watching A Serious Man. We happened to get onto the subject of the 2009 crop of movies and he remarked how much he’d disliked Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. I confess that this was one of those movies that went in one eye and out the other. I watched it, made much out of what the film had tried to do, noted that I didn’t much like it personally—and after spending a few days trying to understand why I didn’t care for it, forgot about it altogether.
By itself I doubt this exchange would’ve have made much of an impression on me, but that wasn’t to be the end of it. On Tuesday, I went to Don Diefenbach’s film appreciation class at UNCA—dragging Justin Souther with me in case I needed back-up—to yammer at his students for about an hour. Originally, the idea was that I would show a movie and then discuss it with the class. In the end, I suggested two films—F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and Joseph McGrath’s The Magic Christian (1969). (Yes, these are about as polar opposite as you can get, though both represent the full-flowering of their respective eras.) The films were shown in blocks before I arrived—with me only coming on the scene for the last 15 minutes of The Magic Christian.
As is usually the case with these lectures—using that term in the loosest possible sense—the topic supposedly under discussion didn’t last all that long and the conversation ‘twixt myself and the class became involved with film on a more generic basis. Most of it was of the expected nature—like do I take notes while watching a movie? (The answer is no.) But somewhere in there a remark was made about critics by their very nature being more in tune with other critics than they are with the general populace. Now, this is something that I realize as being at least partially true. By that, I mean I simply probably have more in common with, say, Andrew Sarris in the way I approach a movie than I have with the teenager in line for a ticket to New Moon. And with notable exceptions, critics do tend to line up with not dissimilar overviews. For instance, at the moment I agree with the majority of critics on Rotten Tomatoes 80 percent of the time, while Roger Ebert agrees 77 percent of the time. (We will not explore how often Armond White agrees with it.)
The figures are only accurate in the broadest sense. We’re always breaking rank. For instance, I gave Frank Miller’s The Spirit (2008) a good review (today, I’d give it an even better one). That means that 15 other guys and I liked a movie that 92 other critics disliked—most of them could be said to have hated it. (One Rotten Tomato denizen, calling him—or her—self “Voice of Frustration,” commented on my review, “Aw, you’re usually my favorite critic,” but I note that VoF defended me from a Twilighter on my New Moon review, so I guess I’ve been forgiven.) There are numerous examples with every critic, but it is true that there is some sort of critical mindset. And I think it’s probably inescapable, because we see so much and don’t just look at movies as something to kill time, which a lot of people do. We’re looking at them in a different light.
Now, what, you may be asking, does all this have to do with Where the Wild Things Are? Well, I’ll get back to that in a minute, but not till we detour to a screening of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Since I’m reviewing this, I’m not going into detail here, but I need to reference it at least in passing, since it is everything that Where the Wild Things Are isn’t.
Another film that qualifies for being everything Jonze’s film isn’t is Pete Docter’s and Bob Peterson’s Up—and this was brought to mind when the folks at Disney sent me a screener. That’s a nice gesture, but it has nothing to do with Disney liking me. It’s all about angling for a South Eastern Film Critics Association vote—and anyway, they killed any bogus sense of good fellowship by sending me a copy of The Proposal, too. (Studios are often known to hold beliefs that would get mere mortals put in a facility where they would be kept away from items hot or sharp.) But no matter, the point is that I watched the film again and realized anew what a truly remarkable work it is.
In the meantime, I’d had another encounter with someone watching (yes, at last) Where the Wild Things Are, which was soundly and succinctly dismissed as “one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.” I was, in all honesty, somewhat taken aback. Even while I hadn’t actually liked the film very much—and had significant problems with large portions of it—that assessment seemed a little strong to me. And then I wondered if it really was. How exactly had I approached the film?
Thinking about it, I’d gone to Where the Wild Things Are with some reservations. The trailer fell between intriguing and looking like something from the “glory” days of Sid and Marty Krofft. Then there was the filmmaker himself, Spike Jonze, whose work has never done a whole lot for me. I know it’s supposed to, but it doesn’t. Even so, I did approach the film as the work of a serious filmmaker of some note. I did judge the film on the basis of what Jonze was apparently trying to do—and adding points for both those moments where it does work (and there are such moments), and for the attempt itself. In the end, what I had done was ironically the exact same thing that Jonze had done: I took the film far too seriously. As a result, I saw Jonze’s very serious children’s film and simply accepted that this excused the film’s general lack of charm, fun or entertainment.
Looked at in this light—and putting Where the Wild Things Are in context with Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox—it seems to me that I almost willed myself to overrate the film by affording it qualities it more aspired to than actually possessed. This is, I think, an occupational hazard, but it’s one that I find personally instructive—and one I feel I should have recognized the very moment I knew that I had no desire whatever to see the movie again. Do I now think it’s in the realm of one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen? Ask that of someone who hasn’t sat through Old Dogs. No, it’s certainly not that bad. I can’t even say I think it’s bad in any normal sense of the word. Rather, it seems to me that it’s a brave attempt that’s done in by its own sense of importance. I’ll be interested to see how its reputation in general holds up over the years.