We went to see Where the Wild Things Are last night. It’s a basic go-to-the-otherworld-to-find-yourself kind of story, in which our hero Max (wonderfully portrayed by the too-cute-for-words Max Records) responds to his mother’s exasperated declaration that he’s “out of control” by running off to where the wild things are. He talks them out of eating him and into getting appointed King of the Wild Things, and the Wild Rumpus ensues. At first Max finds it’s great to be king, but eventually things start to change.
Early reports about the movie suggested that Maurice Sendak (who wrote and illustrated the original children’s book) was happy with Spike Jonze directing the movie because he didn’t try to turn the wild things into just big cute, cuddly teddy bears. In other words, he let them stay wild. Apparently this made the movie studio nervous, and rumors swirled during the production of the movie that it was too scary for kids. Even more to the point, it doesn’t have a tidy, feel-good ending, even though its faithfulness to the book does offer a sense of resolution. Although Max follows the rules of the hero’s journey and makes his return at the story’s dénouement, we viewers are left with the unsettling implication that the wild things remain wild — and in the wild. You never know when they’ll show up again, or when Max will run off for another visit.
My daughter, who normally has a pretty low tolerance for movies with an edge, liked it, and she and I howled like wolves all the way from the theater to the van.
I’m reminded of one of the most important lines in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when one of the characters (it differs from book to movie) notes that Aslan is not a tame lion. The truth is, we always want to tame God, just as we always want to tame anything and everything about our own deep wildness, and about the stories we tell about “the wild” —i.e., the otherworld. We want the fairy-folk to be cute cuddly garden sprites, despite the fact that in Celtic folklore they are not only not-so-small, but also both dangerous and unpredictable. Tolkien wisely gave us the diminutive hobbits as our ambassadors to his otherworld, forcing his readers to identify with small protagonists because ours is an age that insists on keeping our fairy tales small as well. From a hobbit’s-eye view of things, even a domesticated otherworld can still seem mighty big and dangerous. Something similar is at work with Spike Jonze’s reimagining of Sendak’s story, where a child has to encounter some life-sized monsters. Of course, the psychological punchline is that the wild things all live inside of himself. “Inside all of us is a wild thing,” proclaims the movie’s trailer, set to a spunky, bouncy soundtrack. Guess what? Aslan is inside all of us, too, and he’s waiting to roar.
We all want Aslan to be tame, and we want God to be safe and predictable. This is the temptation behind fundamentalist religion, where God is reduced to a robotic father-figure-in-the-sky who rewards the good and punishes the bad. And then there is the God of liberal religion, who just is a big nice guy who loves everybody unconditionally and who pretends that evil doesn’t exist. Where the Wild Things Are (the movie) takes aim at both of these kinds of domesticated deities and blows them to smithereens. It may not be an explicitly religious movie, but it makes some pretty important theological statements nevertheless.
So if the Ultimate Wild Thing isn’t just a robotic dispenser of justice or a feel-good postmodern psychotherapist, then just what are we dealing with? I’m not sure I can answer this question, for after all, we are dealing with Mystery here. Part of why Aslan remains Not a Tame Lion has to do with Aslan being the Ultimate Mystery. But just as in the book version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the beavers assure the Pevensie children that while Aslan isn’t safe, he is good, I think we can start with that small measure of comfort. After all, if God isn’t good, then the universe is meaningless, and we all have to create our own good, much like Max and and the Wild Things build their fort. But without a deeper and higher meaning, sooner or later we tear down the forts we build. But some things endure, like love, compassion, noble acts of self-sacrifice for the good of others, the belief in fairness even when life seems pretty unfair. That these things persist over time, to me is evidence enough that good exists, not as a convenient human construct but as a real ontological principle, somewhere deep inside the ultimate Wild Thing. And that makes me willing to get on the boat and join Max in the adventure. Even though I suspect it will get pretty dangerous out there (or is that “in there”?).