First time I heard a song by They Might Be Giants, it was January or February of 1988, watching MTV’s 120 Minutes at oh-dark-thirty in my dorm room on a Sunday night/Monday morning. The song was “Don’t Let’s Start,” and to this day it remains a favorite. After the intro by Kevin Seal, I was treated to a couple geeky guys singing a weirdly indecipherable lyric to musical noises no one had ever heard before*.
A couple years later, they released their best album — Flood — and after a couple listens I figured out what made the band unique. They Might Be Giants made children’s records. For grown-ups.
You either get that or you don’t; it’s beyond my meager abilities to explain. But then a few years later they came out with an actual children’s album for children, and it really didn’t sound any different from anything they’d done before, and my weird hypothesis was proven correct.
But this isn’t about They Might Be Giants. This is about the Blu-Ray that just arrived from Amazon. It’s a movie based on a children’s book you might have read once or a jillion times. It’s called Where the Wild Things Are.
And from that book, director Spike Jonze has made a near-perfect children’s movie. For grown-ups.
In a typical movie review, this is where I’d praise the cast and the script and the director and the this and all the that. Instead, let’s just assume that I’ve done all those things. And let’s also assume that everything I might say is a positive, with superlatives on top.
Instead, let me reiterate: This is a near-perfect children’s move. For grown-ups.
Don’t get me wrong — your kids will love it. And they’ll love it on levels we can’t understand. Or to be more precise, they’ll love it on levels we once understood, but which got lost in the confusions (and in the certainties) of adulthood. But there are other levels they won’t get — levels Jonze created just for us. Or if my suspicions are correct, levels Jonze created just for himself, but was kind enough to share.
An example. I decided to exercise a little parental guidance and watch the movie before deciding if my four-year-old son was ready to see it. Tucking him into bed earlier this evening, he gave me a big hug and implored, “Stay here with me!”
So then I had to do that awful thing all parents must do, and explain in terms he could understand why Dad can’t do that. “I take up too much room,” “I snore too loud,” etc. While those reasons are all true enough, the most important, unspoken, reason is: “I’m Dad, a stay-at-home dad, and I need grown-up time. Especially at night, when I get my only chance to watch movies I’m not sure you’re ready to see.”
An hour later, I learned that the Wild Things all sleep in “a real pile” together. Except when they don’t, because they can’t.
Art imitates life, because it must.
In the movie, the Wild Things enjoy all the thrills of childhood, but on a bigger scale. And they suffer all the fears and insults and cruelties of childhood, too. On a bigger scale.
Art also magnifies life, because it must.
I’d go into specifics, but you’d rather I didn’t. Discover them on your own.
And let your child discover them, too — but maybe not all on his own. If you’ve been looking for an excuse to share some schnoogle time on the sofa with your kids, then this is it. But this isn’t Star Wars, where you’ll all ooh and aah over the same explosions. Where the Wild Things Are is a voyage of discovery (and explanation) for kids, yet it’s also nostalgia (and the occasional kidney-punch) for parents.
It made me feel like a kid, and I’ll wager, it will make my son feel more grown up — even if only for a couple hours. You can’t ask for much more than that, not out of a movie. But mostly, it’s something we can share.
*Never let it be said that my Steely Dan fandom was a lark or a fluke.