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Parents behaving badly
October 21, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
It was sheer coincidence that “Where the Wild Things Are” opened the same weekend the nation was up in the air with “balloon boy.”
The day before the whimsical tale of a young boy’s adventures in dreamland opened in movie theaters, the nation had been glued to TV screens, supposedly watching the misadventure of a real-live boy.
The media had dropped everything to cover the two-hour flight of a flying-saucerish balloon up to 7,000 feet over Colorado. The reason for being transfixed was the report that a 6-year-old boy, prophetically named Falcon Heene, was inside.
When the balloon finally landed — empty — anguish that the boy might have fallen out gave way to relief when he reappeared at the family home. He had never been in the balloon, it turned out; he had been in a “secret hiding place,” after his father had yelled at him that morning.
It was a story made in media heaven. Literally. But the happy ending was short-lived once Falcon’s family started appearing on the Friday-morning TV shows, where Falcon started throwing up. Literally.
The boy was sick, ventured the TV anchors. But skepticism grew that something wasn’t on the up and up. By Saturday, the word “hoax” was in the air. Talk of criminal charges against Falcon’s parents ranged from filing false reports to contributing to the delinquency of the boy and his brothers. There was also the matter of the bill for scrambling those helicopters and dispatching all those law enforcement and rescue teams. The cost of lost productivity nationwide, as the country stropped to watch, was still being tallied.
By Monday, the whole thing appeared to have been an elaborate scheme on Falcon’s father’s part to land a reality TV show. By now, Heene family lawyers were trying to name reality-TV producers as co-conspirators.
Along with the Colorado sheriff leading the investigation, the media were not amused. No one likes being played for a fool. Editorial writers weighed in, calling the boy’s father stupid for thinking he could get away with such a thing.
Uh, excuse me. It seems like he already had.
Luckily, in between, some of us got in touch with a better sort of boy consciousness in “Where the Wild Things Are.” Adapted by Spike Jonze from Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, this beautiful, eccentric — and now chart-topping — film stems from a time when bedtime stories sufficed for “media.”
Its hero is an imaginative boy named Max (conveniently played by an actor named Max Records). Being at that awkward age, his struggles for the attention of his sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and single mom (the always great Catherine Keener), lead to misunderstanding, biting … and, eventually to the place where the wild things are.
Clad in his animal pajamas with whiskers in the hood and a long tale, Max finds himself in a land populated by characters with big, furry faces and names like Carol, Alexander, Judith, Ira and Douglas.
Voiced by folks including James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper, the wild things sometimes seem scary, but often act more like outpatients from group counseling.
With faces like shaggy cookies, these menacing beasts are more caught up with their own emotions and insecurities. They’re happy to make the young newcomer their king, and smart Max figures it’s a better choice than being eaten by them.
But he quickly learns there’s more to kinging than just wearing the crown.
Director Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers connect the dots of Sendak’s original vision. More about mood than plot, the story is at its best in the crazy maze of Max’s imagination, or subtly illustrating all the feelings he can’t put into words.
Faced with the actual challenges of what a king is supposed to do, he realizes he’s too young to know. What the wild things, and he, really need is a mom.
The film registers this point so beautifully, with so much wit and tenderness, it’s hard not to think the little balloon boy probably needs something similar.
On the first day of his adventure, some of us saw a lovable, Mark Twain kind of fearless mischief in his face. By day two, he had joined Jon and Kate’s eight kids, or the young girls on supermarket tabloid covers, abducted and held for years by psychopaths.
In the media age, these kids redefine “innocent victims.” They’re helpless pawns of the sick, self-absorbed so-called adults around them.
It’s disconcerting to see attention-seekers like Falcon’s father so deftly work the media. (One way of thwarting them would be to stop mentioning their names so much.) But the media also need to hold a mirror up to their eagerness to tar and feather him.
It was the media, after all, that didn’t check the facts before jumping on board and taking us for the ride.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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