Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.
Acclaimed children’s author Maurice Sendak died two weeks ago. While considering Sendak’s legacy, the hosts of Slate Culture Gabfest made a point of panning Spike Jonze’s 2009 film adaptation of Sendak’s most famous book, Where the Wild Things Are, claiming that it made Sendak’s essential book into more of a trifle than a vegetable. I complete my three-week examination of Jonze’s films by testing their claim.
So let’s start with the title. If we take it as a prompt, then the film’s answer is this: the wild things are inside us.
The film’s protagonist, Max, looks inside himself and finds things both beautiful and disturbing. As the film opens, we see the rambunctious Max trying to keep himself occupied. His older sister is concerned with boys. His mom is burdened by a job she’s not doing well at but has to keep in order to support the family. The real wild elephant in the room is Max’s absent dad, gone for a reason the film decides to keep silent about.
We get two key moments of characterization for Max in this early section of the film. In the first, Max looks up from his bunk beds at a trophy on his mantle that reads: “Max, King of the World.” The inscription speaks to Max’s fantasy of power as well as his very real sense that there are very few things in his life that he’s actually king of. In the second, Max’s mother asks him to tell her a story. He unfolds a yarn about a world of tall buildings and vampires, where one of the vampires bites one of the buildings and consequently loses his teeth. He knows that he can no longer be a vampire without his teeth, and so the other vampires leave him behind. The poignant story puts a finger on Max’s moroseness. We can read the allegory as Max’s central dilemma: the vampire was only doing what was in his nature, and following his instincts ultimately cost him everything. Max sees himself as a kid who, when he behaves like a kid, gets blamed for it.
Spike Jonze films these early moments in glorious colors with frenetic camera movement. We see Max playing inside his tent, chasing a dog, playing at recess, and sitting glumly in class as a teacher tells him about the end of life on earth. This dawning awareness of mortality hits a cord with Max. He builds a rocket to escape and invites his mother to come along. She, however, is detained with a gentleman caller. This prompts Max’s most pronounced temper tantrum, and he runs out of the house in his favorite beast outfit, escaping to a world across the sea.
The world of the wild things that Max travels to is no less complicated than the one he’s left behind, however. An assortment of creatures bicker with one another and fight their own self-destructive impulses. Here we find Max in dialogues with different parts of his own personality. There’s Carol, Max at his most destructive; Judith, Max at his most misanthropic; and Alexander, Max at his most skeptical and most ignored. To avoid getting eaten by the crew, Max declares himself a king. For once, his storytelling skills pay off. But the happiness he can bring them as king is short lived. The beasts, and even Max, end up asking if a king is even necessary (this culminates with the beasts finally telling Max they’ve eaten every other king they’ve had). Before Max leaves the island, he has a second birth experience thanks to KW (the wild thing that most closely resembles his sister and mother) and decides his real home is with his mom.
When Max goes back to his house, the boyfriend and sister are gone. The film ends with Max eating chocolate cake as his mom falls asleep.
This is not a kids’ film. It’s an adult film about the moment where the adult world becomes tangible enough for a child to cause problems but too far away for the kid to do anything about it. The film ultimately points out that there is no place where the world is only what we want it to be. Max seems to know by instinct that certain things are unjust, that emotions like love and truth are valuable, and that he is to blame for his destructive behavior.
But Max never thinks about where such positive impulses come from. His other natural instincts are certainly destructive and spiteful. But there never seems to be any actual punishment for Max or the characters he creates, save for their own loneliness. The real punishment is getting kicked out of the group.
Who should adjudicate such punishments? Every king in Max’s fantasies are men, mortals who either get eaten or revealed as liars. The only failsafe is family.
And, yet, the final scene isn’t happy. It’s Max’s own recalibrated fantasy, one where he gets to eat dessert instead of frozen corn alone with a mom who never yells at him for running away.