Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

This review was originally published at the Image blog, Good Letters.

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By the time Max shouted “Let the wild rumpus start!” on opening day ofWhere the Wild Things Are, a rumpus was already raging among the film’s critics.

Reviewers have been roaring and beating their chests in debate. Were director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers faithful enough to author Maurice Sendak’s lavishly illustrated pages? Should they be treated like kings? Or sent to their rooms without dinner?

I’m not too concerned. Debating Peter Jackson’s fidelity to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings makes some sense, as Tolkien gave the filmmakers an encyclopedia of detail. But Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are contains—count them—ten sentences in forty eight pages. How could the movie be anything but an extravagant embellishment?

Do the filmmakers show respect for Sendak’s work?

Enough, I think. What is more—they avoid the pitfalls of so many storybook adaptations.

Wild Things might have been just another crass cartoon, the blanks filled in with relentless snark, fart jokes, and unnecessarily frantic tangents. Most mainstream filmmakers would have made the monsters’ wild rumpus the film’s raison d’être.

Instead, Jonze and Eggers have crafted a thoughtful, poetic, personal interpretation.

And while I’m disappointed that they skipped my favorite images—the transformation of Max’s bedroom, the Sea Monster, the Wild Things swinging from branch to branch — I’m impressed with the film’s approximation of Sendak’s artwork. The set designs and costumes have fantastic textures. Fabric, fur, and glue give the creatures a convincing weight that no digital code could equal.

Nevertheless, the film’s most marvelous wild thing is Max. The actor, nine-year-old Max Records, reminds me of Kelly Reno who played Alec in The Black Stallion — there’s a similarly genuine awe in his face as he tames a magnificent mystery. He makes Max a big-screen rarity: a complicated, surprising, real-world kid.

It helps that Eggers has read between the lines, filling in what Sendak’s prose didn’t say. He’s wrapped his screenplay around its most significant mystery, a question some readers never consider — the absence of Max’s father. Due to the film’s fleeting mention of Dad, the film canbe “read” as a poetic meditation on childhood in the aftermath of divorce.

And why not? Max’s unruly behavior, his powerful compulsion to escape into a world where he’s in charge, his imagination’s monsters — these have always suggested that Max is more than a little upset about something.

The father’s absence casts a shadow over the film. It explains why Max’s mood darkens with every perceived abandonment. When Claire runs off with friends, he’s ruined. When his mother divides her attention between a job and a boyfriend, he riots.

It makes sense that Max would protest, run away, and sail into the storm of his subconscious. Like Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, he plunges into a dark wood where monsters present him with challenges relevant to his “real world” trouble.

The Wild Things—marvelously animated by the Jim Henson Company’s master puppeteers — are as big and fuzzy as the furry critters of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. But they’re not the quiet, comforting helpers of Miyazaki’s world. As in Sendak’s storybook, they’re menacing and miserable.

And in Eggers’ interpretation, these bad animals are prone to betrayals, cliquishness, and smashing up their own homes. That is to say, they’re not just manifestations of Max’s rowdy spirit. They’re revealing his experience of the “big kids” and grownups back home.

The first phase of Max’s fantasy—in which Wild Things submit to his will—is typical of kids who want their own way, who want to dominate their superiors. But like most artists, Max reaches a point where his invention takes on a life of its own. Succumbing to selfishness, prejudice, and disloyalty, the Wild Things disappoint him, reflecting how bigger folks have let him down.

The burly beast called Carol becomes like Max’s ideal Dad, a rowdy giant who obeys his whims. But Carol eventually reveals jealousy, prejudice, and an explosive temper. His contentious relationship with KW, the most maternal of Wild Things, is revealing. Their disputes hint at what Max might have heard before his father left.

When he tries to resolve such conflicts, his subjects answer with his own brash retorts. Exasperated, he repeats his mother’s scolding: “You’re out of control!”

But we see more than Max’s troubles. His longings burn bright as well, illustrated most powerfully when the Wild Things collapse after a “rumpus,” sleeping happily in “a big pile,” suggesting a harmony that Max is missing. Putting the Wild Things to work on a utopian fortress, he shows his desire for creative collaboration.

Wild Things isn’t Spike Jonze’s first exploration of these themes. Being John Malkovich was about adults living out their self-serving fantasies, controlling and manipulating others to satisfy beastly desires. That story ended without any hint of grace, its characters burning in a hell of their own making.

Malkovich is definitely not an all-ages film, but I think Wild Things is a fine, challenging film for young moviegoers. It will challenge its adult viewers too—especially parents and teachers. Children often feel powerless in the turmoil we unleash. If we tell them they’ll just “have to adjust” to the consequences of our selfishness, they might do more than invent wild things. They might become them. I’m surprised that the end credits didn’t employ David Bowie’s classic song “Changes.” He sings:

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds,
They are immune to your consultations,
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.

I’m grateful for the glimmer of hope in his take on Wild Things, just as I’m grateful for Sendak’s enlightening take on The Prodigal Son. I, too, visit my imagination’s “wild things” through storytelling. The beast-men I encounter there take on lives of their own, often reflecting my own failures and sins back to me, sending me home sobered, humbled, grateful for the “hot soup” of grace.

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