To start with, this isn’t going to be a review of Where the Wild Things Are, per se; rather it’s intended as a dis­cus­sion of the film for those who’ve already seen it. As such it could con­tain spoil­ers, and in any case I’d cau­tion you against see­ing it with the bag­gage of pre­con­ceived notions. (Then again, if you’ve ever read the book, you already have pre­con­ceived notions about this film, most of which will prove to be quite wrong.)

That said, I will offer up this one state­ment as a review: I don’t really believe this is a film for kids. (There are qual­i­fiers to be attached, but I can’t get into them until after I’ve dis­cussed it, below.)

Briefly, if you have a five-​​year-​​old who loves the book, avoid tak­ing him or her to the movie until you’ve seen it your­self. The kid will pos­si­bly be bored, pos­si­bly spooked, and you might come out of it feel­ing any range of emo­tions from dis­ap­pointed to bewil­dered to dis­turbed to just plain wrung out.

I did like the film, quite a lot; but I don’t really think it’s suit­able for young kids, that’s all. And if you’re an adult who loved the book as a child, be aware that this movie is not a sim­ple retelling of the book. The movie is for adults who loved the book as kids, but who are now grown up, and who know what that means.

So. Discussion and pos­si­ble spoil­ers fol­low.

Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are is com­prised (now famously) of ten sen­tences, with a hell of a lot of metic­u­lously drawn ink art to flesh out the story. It’s been a peren­nial favorite more or less since it was pub­lished in the six­ties. But given its brevity, and in par­tic­u­lar its almost total lack of nar­ra­tive, it’s hard to imag­ine how any­one could seri­ously con­ceive mak­ing a 90-​​minute fea­ture based on it — or, for that mat­ter, any­thing other than about a ten-​​minute cartoon.

This is accom­plished by giv­ing back­story to Max, and by fun­da­men­tally chang­ing the frame of the nar­ra­tive. In the book, Max is pre­sented as being, plau­si­bly, five years old or so. In the film he’s about twice that age (it’s never actu­ally said how old he is, but he’s old and sophis­ti­cated enough to be ready to strug­gle with some com­plex issues, which means at least eight or nine).

This is, for­tu­nately, not an exam­ple of a too-​​old child being put into a role that he’s sup­posed to play down to — as was the case, for instance, with ABC’s godaw­ful Stephen King’s The Shining, in which Danny, aged five, was played by Courtland Mead, who at the time was ten, and quite obvi­ously so. Rather than try to shove Max’s actor (inter­est­ingly, and won­der­fully, named Max Records) into a role far too small for him, a choice appears to have been made to age Max up a little.

This change alone makes for a fairly dras­tic depar­ture from Sendak’s book. In the writ­ten ver­sion Max just plays up a bit, is sent to bed with­out sup­per, has a dream and wakes to find that some­one (pre­sum­ably a repen­tant Mom) has left a meal for him beside his bed. All of book-Max’s inter­ac­tions with the Wild Things take place — obvi­ously — inside his head, in a dream that is full of non­lin­ear adven­ture but lack­ing in real emo­tional or psy­cho­log­i­cal sophis­ti­ca­tion. Obviously the film couldn’t present some­thing so patently juve­nile, not if it wanted to sus­tain a lengthy nar­ra­tive. Transformers II notwithstanding.

Changing the frame — rather, expand­ing it — seems to have been the key. While it’s true that the absent father (or mother) in a typ­i­cal film is often sub­sti­tuted for any real attempt to see or under­stand why a child’s char­ac­ter is so dif­fi­cult to deal with, the movie ver­sion of Where the Wild Things Are actu­ally tack­les this directly, but in a most uncom­mon way. Instead of play­ing out the departure/​death/​leave-​​taking/​divorce by flash­backs, we’re given only hints of what hap­pened in snatches of dia­logue between Max and the var­i­ous Wild Things. I found this approach novel, and very refreshing.

We know Max is excitable; this is estab­lished before the title even hits the screen. Dressed in his iconic wolf suit, the boy chases the fam­ily dog (wield­ing a fork for at least part of the time, some­thing that made me cringe), tack­ling the poor ani­mal and wrestling with it. The dog appears to be about the size of a Terrier.

And there, we’re told, is Where the Wild Things Are.

We go to a scene of Max dig­ging an igloo and lay­ing up a cache of snow­balls. He tries to lure his older sis­ter out­side but she’s hav­ing none of it, pre­fer­ring to talk on the phone with what we even­tu­ally learn is a boyfriend (at least, prob­a­bly). Max is thus left to play alone for a while, but is inter­rupted when his sister’s friends drive up to the house.

He ambushes them with snow­balls. This goes well enough, at first, but it gets extreme very fast, and Max ends up buried under his igloo’s remains, in a claus­tro­pho­bic visual that will be reprised at least twice more in the movie’s run. He comes up blub­ber­ing. His sis­ter leaves with her friends, tellingly doing noth­ing to inter­vene. One pre­sumes she’s fed up with her kid brother.

Max’s response is to trash her room, and destroy a lit­tle hand­made memento he’d given her at some unspec­i­fied time in the past, pos­si­bly Valentine’s Day.

And then, as quickly as that, Max’s energy is drained. His pre­vi­ous exu­ber­ance, off­set by a later bout of somewhat-​​disturbing rage, has turned into shame and remorse. To his credit, Max admits to what he’s done, and helps his mother clean up the mess he made of his sister’s room.

All of this plays out in the first ten or so min­utes of film, and it’s enough to con­vince some peo­ple that Max is a brat, but I don’t agree with that assess­ment at all. I’ve known a few kids like Max over the years — many of us prob­a­bly have — so I was will­ing to extend some benefit-​​of-​​doubt to him. I don’t read his char­ac­ter as brat­tish; I read it instead as hurt­ing, angry and afraid.

I knew Max. I under­stood him perfectly.

Max’s father is absent. We never learn why, but it’s clear that the absence is per­ma­nent. The house has a lived-​​in feel to it, so I don’t think they’ve just moved fol­low­ing a divorce. If that’s why Max’s father is miss­ing, he’s the one who moved away, and there’s no real indi­ca­tion that he is a part of Max’s life any more.

Divorce can seem that way to a young child, par­tic­u­larly if the father is a hell of a long dis­tance away (as opposed to being three blocks over), but the lack of back­story here actu­ally helps. After all, Max’s father could just as eas­ily be dead. The absence would still be per­ma­nent, and still be acute, and would still rep­re­sent a deeply wound­ing event that a young kid would absolutely have a hell of a hard time pro­cess­ing. (Most adults too, for that matter.)

We know he was a pres­ence; appar­ently he gave Max a globe at some point with an inscrip­tion on its base say­ing, “You own this world.” (The same phrase is echoed later in the nar­ra­tive by Carol.) The gift is clearly from a man who either loved his son com­pletely, and is now per­ma­nently gone; or who was one of those types of fathers who are long on promises and flow­ery words, but short on actual respon­si­bil­ity. Again, ambi­gu­ity in the back­story, an ambi­gu­ity that is never clarified.

How this helps is some­thing I’ll go into a bit later.

To return to the imme­di­acy of Max, we see that he’s made of extremes. When he’s happy, he’s exu­ber­ant. When he’s angry, his rage is destruc­tive and over­pow­er­ing. When he’s sad, it’s total. (And kudos to Records, by the way, for pro­duc­ing what I believe are some of the most con­vinc­ing tears I’ve ever seen onscreen from any young actor; they were wholly believ­able and imme­di­ate, leav­ing me to won­der for one brief, ter­ri­ble moment what direc­tor Spike Jonze had said to the poor kid right before rolling film.)

Max’s mer­cu­r­ial moods were some­thing I could absolutely relate to, in part because I’ve observed it in kids — gen­er­ally boys — who are deal­ing with truly huge issues; but also because I have a sense I was sim­i­larly extreme when I was about Max’s age, pos­si­bly because of sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances. (Long-​​distance move, social upheaval, par­ents’ divorce.)

I’m very glad that not a hint was made of ADHD at all in the entire story. Max’s prob­lems are far deeper and more arche­typal than what can be addressed by a few mil­ligrams of Ritalin or Adderall. I could see why Max was act­ing out — and I could see that he was act­ing out. That made it pos­si­ble for me to relate to him both as an adult (?) and as a for­mer (??) child, and touched me profoundly.

That sense of dou­ble vision of the heart was one I would con­tinue hav­ing through­out the film. Both the story and its pre­sen­ta­tion made end runs around all my defenses, open­ing me to my own past and the real­i­ties that kids are still liv­ing through today. Max is begin­ning to learn that imper­ma­nence per­me­ates every part of life — his sis­ter is mov­ing into other areas of inter­est, tak­ing a path he can­not fol­low — and in school we’re pre­sented with a sci­ence teacher who has no busi­ness being in a class­room full of pre­pu­bes­cent children.

No, not for that rea­son; he’s dis­cussing the solar sys­tem and goes off on a tan­gent about the fact that even­tu­ally the Sun will burn out. He doesn’t make any seri­ous attempt to reas­sure his mostly-​​bored class that we’re talk­ing a time­frame more or less incon­ceiv­able to humans; he just makes a com­ment to the effect that “one day, the Sun will die,” and that humans might get through it assum­ing we haven’t all died out long before because of some other calamity.

While all of this is unde­ni­ably true, there are bet­ter ways to present these facts to kids. I recall my own dis­tress when, at the age of eight or so, I learned some­thing sim­i­lar by read­ing a book about the uni­verse. It was upset­ting as hell to me to imag­ine a cold, life­less Earth shrouded in ice, the Sun a faint and dying light in the sky — made more so by the help­ful illus­tra­tion of a fairly real­is­tic paint­ing show­ing the event.

So to add to Max’s cur­rent menu of prob­lems, he now has to rumi­nate on the even­tual fate of Earth itself. (Remember, he owns this world.) And then, when his mother is on an at-​​home date with a man whom we never see again — the film has a few min­i­mal­ist ref­er­ences of this kind, focus­ing as it does mostly on Max and his wide emo­tional swings — we see him respond very neg­a­tively to yet another dis­rup­tion in his rapidly-​​changing world. He becomes demand­ing, then bel­liger­ent, and in a fit of rage bites his mother on the shoul­der. She ends up drop­ping him on the floor and cry­ing, “What’s the mat­ter with you?”

This is too much for Max to take, and he bolts out­side and pelts up the dark­ened streets, even­tu­ally shak­ing his mother’s pur­suit. He comes to a small sail­boat at a name­less shore, and pulls the ulti­mate dis­ap­pear­ing act by set­ting the prow toward the hori­zon and coast­ing into the star­lit gloom. Off to sea! Talk about run­ning away.

Somehow he man­ages to know how to nav­i­gate the lit­tle craft; and also man­ages not only to keep it afloat and upright in a heavy sea; but also is able to make for — and land on — an island whose surf-​​pounded shores are sur­mounted by a for­bid­ding moun­tain, the major char­ac­ter­is­tic of which is a peak lit by fires. Struggling upward to them, he — and we — get a first glimpse of the Wild Things.

Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini, is smash­ing up some large rounded shapes. While he’s doing so, we learn in his dia­logue with the other Wild Things both that he is unhappy, and that this is hardly a new state of affairs. He’s lament­ing the loss of KW, who has gone off to be with her new friends Bob and Terry. His response is to try to goad the other Wild Things into smash­ing up the remain­ing shapes. When no one vol­un­teers to help, Max comes run­ning out of the for­est and presents him­self to Carol. They take a shine to each other, and pro­ceed to com­mit fur­ther mayhem.

It’s only after he knocks a hole in one of the shapes to find a mas­sive, bull-​​like crea­ture inside that Max learns he is help­ing Carol smash their homes.

When he stops his van­dal­ism, Max quickly finds him­self sur­rounded by very large, very tall and very toothy (as well as beaky) crea­tures, who begin debat­ing on whether he will have small, bird-​​like bones that stick in their throats when they eat him. He man­ages to get their atten­tion by cry­ing, “Be still!”, then dis­tracts them, con­vinces them he has “pow­ers”, and get­ting him­self crowned king. It hap­pens very quickly, but it’s believ­able from the per­spec­tive of a child, and while an adult might balk at the ease with which Max manip­u­lates the Wild Things into doing what he wants, it is, after all, Max’s head we’re inside. Probably.

KW chooses this time to return, and King Max declares a Wild Rumpus. Much rough­hous­ing fol­lows, end­ing in a dog­pile with Max at the bot­tom. He and KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) share a con­ver­sa­tion in which she tells him she’s glad he came to the island, and every­one ends up falling asleep.

While all of the Wild Things have some kind of rela­tion­ship to one another — rang­ing from friend­ship to romance — Carol’s with KW is the most fully sketched out emo­tion­ally, but the least expli­cated. There’s affec­tion there as well as fric­tion; and it could be sib­ling, roman­tic or sim­ple friend­ship. Again we have ambi­gu­ity, and again that ambi­gu­ity leaves plenty of room for the story to fit the state of mind of the viewer. (This per­sis­tent light touch is one of the finer aspects of the movie, I think; Where the Wild Things Are is a film that is emo­tion­ally acces­si­ble to a sur­pris­ingly wide spectrum.)

Carol becomes sev­eral sur­ro­gates for Max: an older brother, a father fig­ure, and a reflec­tion of Max’s own trou­bling emo­tions. KW, by con­trast, is a friend, adviser and, one pre­sumes, a sur­ro­gate mother of sorts with the sole excep­tion that she’s always kind and patient with Max. She is Sophia, the voice of Wisdom. An ide­al­ized mother-​​figure, and one who more or less lit­er­ally is respon­si­ble for Max’s rebirth. More on that later.

Carol con­fides in Max, show­ing him a model city he’s made. Max is so enam­ored of it that he imme­di­ately gets the Wild Things work­ing on con­struct­ing a full-​​sized ver­sion. They fall to the tasks with gusto, seem­ingly glad to be tak­ing orders from their new king, but not before we’ve had a cou­ple of dis­turb­ing insights. The first occurs early in the story, when the Wild Things retrieve Max’s crown. It’s buried in ashes amid skele­tons. On ques­tion­ing, Carol denies know­ing the skele­tons were there. Later, he learns from Max that the Sun will “die” one day, and seems to offer him some con­so­la­tion — but he’s clearly unset­tled by the idea.

It’s left to Judith (Catherine O’Hara) to take Max to task in the most direct fash­ion, some­times behav­ing in a child­ish way with him, and other times say­ing things to him that are prob­a­bly the very feel­ings he’s had him­self, but been unable to artic­u­late. At one point he gets into an argu­ment with her and becomes angry, and she responds with some­thing like, “No, you don’t get to do that. You don’t get to be angry with us. We say we want to eat you and you say, all right, go ahead. You’re our king. You’re sup­posed to take care of us.” The impli­ca­tions of par­ent­hood here are obvi­ous, and to Jonze’s credit, he does not ham­mer it home. Nor, it seems, is Judith’s dia­tribe lost on Max; he becomes thoughtful.

Later, when Max explains Carol’s behav­ior by telling the other Wild Things that he’s just afraid (essen­tially of los­ing KW to Bob and Terry), it’s clear the boy is think­ing. And learn­ing, and growing.

Carol is the ulti­mate Id, if you’re a Freudian; if not, he’s the total child: self­ish, self-​​centered and infi­nitely needy. In him Max sees reflec­tions of his own behav­ior, and begins to under­stand (as he tries to with­draw from Carol) why it is that oth­ers some­times with­draw from him. It’s not because they don’t love him — though they might some­times be intim­i­dated by his tow­er­ing fits of rage — it’s just because he can some­times be a lit­tle too much to take. Furthermore, every­one has a pri­vate life, and hav­ing it con­stantly invaded by a need-​​machine can quickly become overwhelming.

All seems to be going well for a while, but then KW takes Max off to meet Bob and Terry, who turn out to be large owls. When they bring the birds back to meet the other Wild Things, Carol leaves in a huff. His ini­tial good cheer is clearly erod­ing; while he started out some­what lik­able if too emo­tional, the cracks are begin­ning to show, and we’re begin­ning to real­ize that he is a twelve-​​foot-​​tall mon­ster with big claws and teeth. And that his great­est fear is of loss, and that’s a prob­lem, because loss is inevitable.

Further fric­tion ensues and Carol, in a pas­sion of anger, sor­row and fear, says one of the more telling lines in the movie, lament­ing that one day “the Sun is going to die,” and that there’s noth­ing any­one can do to stop it.

Okay, now think about this for a moment. Sun. Son.

The son is going to die, and no one can stop it.

If Carol and the rest of the Wild Things are essen­tially Max’s own emo­tions and inter­nal mono­logues given form and voice, Max would then arguably be “the son”, and this would seem to rep­re­sent his first real­iza­tion of his own mor­tal­ity. It’s still too big for him to face first-​​person, so he’s sim­ply “the son”, but the aware­ness seems to be there. Recurrent imagery in the movie puts Max into dark tun­nels, being con­sumed, tak­ing long voy­ages into night.

This could eas­ily have been brought on by his sci­ence teacher’s poor ped­a­gog­i­cal style; or again, it could be brought on by the loss of his own father. We don’t know where the man went — divorce or death, it’s never explored — and that’s one rea­son the ambi­gu­ity is pow­er­ful. In any case I don’t think the sun/​son homonym was a mistake.

Things fall apart pretty rapidly after that. Max is chased by Carol and hid­den by KW. (She con­vinces him to climb into her stom­ach.) She denies hav­ing seen him, and then, in a scene so fraught with over­tones that a brain-​​damaged earth­worm could under­stand it, pulls him forth back into the world alive and whole.

After a final heart-​​to-​​heart (ahem) with her, Max real­izes it’s time for him to leave the island. Things have gone pretty poorly lately, and it seems almost as though he’s giv­ing up — or maybe he’s sim­ply seen that he can’t really serve any fur­ther pur­pose by stay­ing there any more. Most likely, though, he’s begin­ning to under­stand that his mother is prob­a­bly very wor­ried, and he needs to return to her; he needs her as much as she does him.

Looking for Carol to bid farewell, he dis­cov­ers that the Wild Thing has smashed up his model city. Of Carol there is no trace. Max has no option but to leave behind a memento of him­self — a heart with an M in it, a res­onat­ing image that began with his trash­ing of his sister’s bed­room — and then he’s off to the shore to sail back home. It’s at this point that KW drops a throw­away line that might be the soul of the story. She tells Max some­thing to the effect of, “You’re the first king we’ve ever had that we didn’t eat up.”

If Max is not the first child to visit this island, what does it sug­gest about the Wild Things? Clearly they’re pres­ences that can be encoun­tered by any boy (or girl) who would be king (or queen, yes), and clearly they’re capa­ble of con­sum­ing a child ill-​​equipped to han­dle them, par­tic­u­larly if fac­ing them alone. Well, all chil­dren have prob­a­bly faced them alone.

Somehow Max has come through all right, maybe because he’s able to show some wit; and maybe because he’s will­ing to be wrong some­times, to learn and grow. While the film is really about Max, it’s also clearly about adults who were once Max; and it’s just as clearly for adults who are deal­ing with Maxes of their own; and it’s for any Max now who has the insight and sen­si­tiv­ity to really understand.

Thus my ear­lier qual­i­fier. This film really isn’t for most kids. It may not be for many adults. But it def­i­nitely is for some kids, and for some adults; the annoy­ing part for me is how it’s been mar­keted here in the states.* I don’t know exactly how I’d mar­ket it, myself; but I damn sure wouldn’t try to sug­gest it’s appro­pri­ate for five-​​year-​​olds, or for many thirty-​​year-​​olds. It’s far too deep in some places for a kid, and can be very damn dis­turb­ing for adults. Seeing the grad­ual break­down of Carol, know­ing his fury is gath­er­ing and will erupt soon, is enough to make the hairs on your neck stand up.

It’s a hell of a hard demo­graphic to mar­ket. Adults who were wounded chil­dren; and wounded chil­dren; and adults strug­gling to under­stand their children’s needs. Unfortunately, while the demo­graphic is still a minor­ity, it’s grow­ing. I expect this movie will quickly find its way into the arse­nals of child psy­chol­o­gists look­ing for a way to help trou­bled kids fac­ing loss to artic­u­late — or at least con­front — their fears.

Max even­tu­ally makes it home. We don’t know how long he’s been gone. Fantasy demands it was just one night, but the nar­ra­tive took place over days, at least. His mother is pre­dictably glad to see him, and feeds him soup and cake and milk, sit­ting by him at the table and watch­ing him eat. While he’s pol­ish­ing off the cake she falls asleep. Max sees this, gazes at her for a moment, smiles softly — you can see the under­stand­ing in his eyes of her fear for him, her worry, and his deter­mi­na­tion to not put her through it any more — and then the story ends. Not, as in the book, with Max know­ing he is loved; but instead with Max know­ing he loves some­one other than himself.

Technically this movie is excel­lent. In his review, Roger Ebert made the fol­low­ing comment:

The voice actors and the f/​x artists give their fan­tas­ti­cal char­ac­ters per­son­al­ity. When I men­tion spe­cial effects, I don’t want to give the impres­sion that the Wild Things are all smoke and mir­rors. In close-​​up, they seem tan­gi­bly there, and at times I believe human actors are inside cos­tumes. I used to be able to spot this stuff, but f/​x has got­ten so good that some­times you just don’t know.

I have to agree. That the Wild Things were partly live-​​acted by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop had no lit­tle to do with this, but the blend­ing of live action and CGI is almost per­fectly seam­less. Particularly dur­ing Max’s last moments on the island, when he’s con­fronting Carol, the emo­tive power is breath­tak­ing. (And yes, it will prob­a­bly make you cry. It sure did me.)

There’s a sense of scale, and of real­ity, to the con­struc­tion project Max and the Wild Things under­take; and there is a sense of mass and strength in these over­sized, demi-​​cute, semi-​​menacing chil­dren. But the effects don’t over­power the plot; they sim­ply serve it, as good effects always should.

Musically, the movie is lovely. The vocal sound­track, com­posed by Karen O, is so thor­oughly rem­i­nis­cent of Arcade Fire that I thought at first they’d actu­ally scored the film. I under­stand now why their song, “Wake Up”, was used for the teasers. (It’s not in the film, but you can get the sin­gle pretty much any­where.) I ended up buy­ing the vocal track, and I really like it.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Where the Wild Things Are, but it’s a far deeper story than I expected it to be, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. It affected me pro­foundly, almost sur­gi­cally; and I ended up quite moved by it. I know that as soon as it’s out on DVD it’ll make its way into my per­ma­nent collection.

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* This same fail­ure of mar­ket­ing hap­pened with Pan’s Labyrinth, a good but dis­turb­ing film that had no busi­ness being sold in the US as a won­drous fairy-​​tale. Here’s a tip for future mar­keters of movies like this: It’s okay to say what the film is really about. You don’t have to sell it to kids.

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