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.
* 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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