“Well, are you?” asks KW, the Wild Thing voiced by Lauren Ambrose who becomes Max’s proxy big sister.
“I don’t know,” he responds.
Later, when Max’s efforts to unify the Wild Things have fallen apart, splintered by dirt fights that have gone too far, a fort that didn’t work the way it was supposed to, and the Wild Things’ fears that Max likes some of them better than others, Max is forced to confess to his closest friend Carol, the Wild Thing brought to life with surprising tenderness by James Gandolfini, that he is not actually a king.
“So, what are you?” Carol asks him.
“I’m Max,” he says.
“Well, that’s not very much, is it?” Carol flings back at him. But at the end of the movie, as Max sails back to his human family, Carol races across the Wild Things’ world to try to say goodbye to him. And as the water opens up between them, they howl at each other in recognition, in love, and in mourning for the self Max is leaving behind. It’s a tremendously complicated, rich moment, one that requires no special effects or exaggerated fights to magnify or translate the emotions on naked display.
In Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, the main characters’ fears are a bit less primal. Instead of worrying about whether they’re inherently good people, Flint Lockwood, an eccentric scientist, and Sam Stein, a perky weather girl, worry about whether they’ll be able to find places in their communities. While Flint has been true to his passions, even as the failures of his inventions have distanced him from his father and his home town, Sam has obliterated her inner geek beneath a veneer of slick stylishness in order to look and sound like a generic television reporter. Her first assignment is to Flint’s town, where he has figured out how to make it rain food. But she keeps letting big scientific terms slip, and to his credit, Flint asks her why she hides her intelligence.
“When I was a little girl,” Sam confesses, “I had a pony-tail, glasses, and was totally obsessed with the science of weather.” In the movie’s bravest moment, Flint conjures a scrunchie made out of jello for her to tie her hair back with, and puts her glasses on before declaring, “You were okay before, but now you’re beautiful.” For adult audiences, it’s a clever and sweet reversal of the sexy librarian discarding her glasses. But to younger watchers, who are too young to know that in the movies every girl is pretty the moment she tries, but old enough to know what’s pretty and what’s not, that sweet, risky moment might seem like a revelation.
Sam keeps her hair up and her glasses on for the rest of the movie. And where in a teen comedy, her made-over self might gain the strength to confront the cheerleading captain, putting on glasses unleashes Sam’s inner scientist. She and Flint work together to stop his food-producing machine, which has gone into overdrive, covering an elementary school in giant flapjacks and sending enormous ears of corn crashing down on the Great Wall of China. These images are uneasy rather than outright frightening, as befits a movie about what it’s like to have far too much of a familiar good thing.