Some time back I read Kate Dicamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant and yesterday I saw Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Both were filled with beautiful imagery. Both had a sort of ironic humorous sensibility that I like. Both respected their main characters. Both had sad moments, funny moments, extraordinary settings, and provided unique viewing/reading experiences. Both were much admired by me. And both left me puzzled.
I’d read a few reviews of the Jonze movie before I went. Those reviewers either loved the movie or thought it was a bust. One felt the beginning was great whereas another thought the beginning was weak. Basically they all canceled each other out and I was neutral (well, perhaps a bit more on the “show me” side of things) when I went into the theater. But I was taken in immediately with Max’s “art” during the titles and further engaged by the incredible verisimilitude of the movie Max’s situation and responses. I spend my day with children of Max’s age and can say that the portrayal, the words, the pouts, the tears, the comments, the energy, everything was spot on.
I found the movie to be beautiful, moving, and I enjoyed it very much. For what it was — a story of an angry boy named Max. Not the same angry boy of Sendak’s book — that Max has his own life on the page and his own adventure in and out of anger. Some of the terrain and characters may overlap, but each Max has his own story and I recommend valuing each on its own.
Decamillo’s book is also full of beautiful and moving images and language. It has the feel of something from an earlier century — not just the setting, but the style too —in the tradition of certain sorts of literary fairy tale writers — say Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde. There is the developing of an unconventional family by the end that reminded me of one of my favorite books, Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child.
The two works of art are completely different, but with both I wondered about audience, especially child audience. Will children enjoy the movie? I’m thinking if they are old enough, but not too old, they will. For they will appreciate what Max is experiencing; it is so raw and so real. They will be captivated by the wild things, by what they do, by what happens. And many adults (like me) will be too for a variety of reasons.
As for The Magician’s Elephant, I’m trying to get a better handle on it still, months after I first experienced it. I started reading it aloud to my class last year, but they didn’t care for it. I’ve got a new group this year and want to try again. But who knows? I’ve never even tried to read more than a few pages of The Mouse and His Child to my students. Much as I love it, I’ve never figured out the child audience. Just as I’m not sure about audience for the story about the elephant.
The bottom line? For me, there is none for these two. Both had beautiful and moving moments, provoked a few tears and a sniffle or two, were filled with witty lines, and both are enigmas for me. My recommendation — read and see both for yourselves.