You Make My Heart Sing (PG)
A very adult version of a kids’ story First, a note: This might be a different type of review than what you’re used to seeing here. A little less straightforward. A little more self-indulgent. But, hey, I’m the boss, and sometimes the boss gets to do what she wants.
The much-beloved book Where the Wild Things Are actually doesn’t mean that much to me. I don’t even remember reading it as a kid—I think I was a few years too old when it came out. I knew it, of course, and am familiar with it and how much it means to people, but it’s not one of the seminal books of my childhood. But the film, directed by Spike Jonze, became, in the space of two hours, one of the most personally meaningful films I’ve ever seen.
Some reasons why that might be so:
- My father’s name was Max, the same as the boy in the story.
- He was a journalist, travelling all over the world to tell stories.
- He died a little over a month ago.
So you’ll have to forgive me a little sentimentality.
The movie follows Max, a boy with problems. His parents are divorced, his older sister is moving into adolescence and leaving him behind, and his mom (Catherine Keener) is struggling at work. Very little else is given in terms of the people that surround Max—since it’s his point of view at work, and children are inherently narcissistic, we don’t get many details.
Max is angry. His anger is borne out of confusion and loneliness and his rages are terrifying. Many young kids in the showing I attended were carried out in tears—Max’s screaming and the close framing of his out-of-control flailing was too much for them.
After a particularly bad rage, Max (Max Records, in a stunningly effortless performance) flees to a land of his own creation, which makes it as real as anything. Located across a vast ocean, the inhabitants are the instantly recognizable monsters from the book. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini in work that’s worthy of an Oscar nomination) is kind of the leader, a guileless creature that becomes fanatical in his devotion to Max’s leadership. Douglas (Chris Cooper) is a eagle-based voice of reason; lovebirds Ira and Judith (Forest Whitaker and Catherina O’Hara), sensitve (and often-ignored) Alexander (Paul Dano), silent, hulking The Bull (Michael Berry, Jr.) and adolescent KW (Lauren Ambrose) round out the group.
Max is crowned king, which is great at first. But he makes the promises that all kings promise their subjects—the same promises that all parents make to their kids. He has powers, he says. He has a shield that can protect them all from sadness and loneliness, he says. They’ll be together forever, he says. Their land will be a land where everyone is protected, where everyone is loved equally, where everyone is safe, where everyone will be happy, where no one will leave.
Things don’t work out that way. Rivalries crop up. Jealously intrudes. Games turn violent. Loneliness invades.
No one feels the effect of the crumbling of the walls Max promised to build more than Carol. When things begin to go wrong, Max sees Carol’s hurt and his pain and is helpless to assuage it. He makes more promises. He tries to explain. He tries to make things fair, only to realize that making things fair for everyone means some people are going to find things unfair. He looks for wisdom but can’t understand the oracles. He has to admit that he can’t make things perfect, that hurts will come.
Max becomes a parent, watching his charges deal with the pain that life inevitably brings.
And then, as all parents eventually must, Max—the boy who loves stories, the boy who needed to travel—sails away home, leaving behind a ragtag, brokenhearted bunch of monsters behind on the shore.
It’s a stunner of a film, particularly visually. At Max’s home, we see the world through the angles of childhood—from under desks, from the top of the stairs. In the land of the monsters, we trade confined and closed-in for great expanses of forests and deserts (which means we also trade in the safety of home for the danger of the void.) in the land of the monsters, time seems to bend to Max’s will; the monsters speak to Max as an equal, not as a child. But attempting to put away childish things while still a child can lead to unimagined consequences.
More than anything, the film is about childhood and just how hard it is. Imagine having to go through everything children go through—but without any of the numbing agents we can access as adults. No drinking, no yoga, no bubble baths to soothe our souls. Just that feeling of being out of control of our very lives, of not knowing what’s to come and not understanding that adults scream into pillows when screaming is necessary. In childhood, you just scream.
This movie is not for young children, period. I went to a public showing, and the under-6 crowd was either bored, scared or confused for most of the time. I don’t imagine any kid under 10 would get much out of it, either—the action is slow to come and spaced wide apart. But the 14-year-old boy sitting next to me was crying at the end. As the credits rolled, he turned to his companion. “That,” he said, “was a [expletive] great movie.”
He was right.
Previews at an October 16 screening were AstroBoy (who proudly states “I have machine guns in my butt!”, Planet 51, A Christmas Carol (the Ghost of Christmas Future is kind of scary, but we only get a brief glimpse) and The Blind Side.
Kristen Page-Kirby is the editor of Chesapeake Family Magazine. She last reviewed Whip It.