Of all the movies I love the most controversial may be Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are?
I can’t think of any movie where literally half of the party I was with thought it was dazzling and half hated it.
It’s very polarizing, so let me explain why I like it.
The movie starts off with a boy named Max who builds a series of forts. The first is a snow fort and then another is in his room with blankets.
Max becomes angry when the snow fort is destroyed by his sister Claire’s friends and she won’t do anything to help (or even look at said fort at the beginning) and then again when his mother won’t pay attention to his fort at home.
Everyone seemingly is ignoring and destroying him and he can’t do a thing about it. His emotions feel out of control (big point of the movie). The fort, snowballs, bullies, all of Max’s emotions are all foreshadowing to what you see later with the animals except for with them Max has control and in the beginning he has none. He is all hurt, anger, and emotion.
Then he goes to school and his teacher tells him about environmental collapse and the death of the sun. He then has to meet his mother’s new boyfriend and he has a tantrum and runs away to our magic land. You can feel Max like a tea pot boiling up ready to burst at any moment.
Why does this work for me? Because I remember being a kid and feeling angry and scared. I remember puzzling at the things I was taught that seemed to be beyond belief or so sad they made me sad. I remember staring up into the ceiling late at night and wondering why people were so mean and difficult to understand.
I remember thinking that if only people would listen to me they would see what I was trying to say. Especially when I was teenager I felt frustrated at my complete inability to express what was inside my heart.
One time I literally stomped my feet and told my family that
‘you are the weird one’s. I’m the normal one and you don’t get it’. (see I was the wild one….)
Granted it was a completely ridiculous thing to say, if I wanted any good done, but it was a pent up explosion of emotions. Isn’t it basically another way of saying and conveying what Max is feeling? ‘You all don’t understand, don’t listen and it is making me angry and worried’.
So, Max runs and finds a boat that takes him across the ocean and to a land with 7 ‘wild things’. In a brilliant touch these are not CGI creations but puppets from Jim Henson’s studio. This makes them feel tactile like a kids stuffed animal.
The first of the creatures he meets is Carol, who is in the middle of a tantrum, caused by the abandonment of a girl wild thing named KW. At first Max is excited about the tantrum and joins in and then realizes the wild things want to eat him.
Using his quick thinking Max convinces them not to eat him and that he is actually a king that has come to rule them and help them be happy. They get it and this is very exciting for Max. They do what they are told!
They agree and his first order of business is to call a wild rumpus where they destroy trees and play.
Now I tell you what kid would not do just that when named King over wild monsters? A wild rumpus is so brilliant in its chaos yet predictability.
At this point Max looks happy for the first time in the movie. He is finally allowed to play and let all the misunderstanding and frustrations out. He is also allowed to lead, taken seriously by someone, and this makes him happy.
I totally relate to this as the times in my life when I am given that reaction are typically the most gleeful.
I think of myself after finishing a swim and how great it feels to have conquered a wild thing, something people think is really hard. I suspect there is something inside all of us that likes to conquer chaos.
So, the wild things pile up for the night and we get a better introduction to all 7 Carol, Ira, Judith, Alexander, Douglas, the Bull, and K.W. Each represent a different part of Max’s life and personality.
Carol- is the tantrum, angry side that wants to be understood, Ira and Judith are a couple and Judith is loud and bossy, Douglas is a good friend and loyal to Carol, KW is lonely and on the outside of the group, Alexander is talked down to and mistreated (the victim of the group), The Bull is on the side and less developed.
There are also 2 owls that are introduced named Bob and Terry. These are outsiders to the group who KW is friends with (much like Max’s mother’s boyfriend who comes in as an outsider that only she likes) but the rest don’t like especially Judith who says they should not be allowed into the group’s fort.
Max had previously stated that any outsiders will have their ‘brains automatically cut off”. To try and solve the division Max starts a dirt clod fight that he thinks will separate the good from the bad.
Look how happy he is at the beginning of this scene, how free he feels. It’s beautiful:
Unfortunately things do not go well and Alexander is hurt, KW leaves again. Just as Max had done earlier in the movie, Carol becomes angry at Max for not doing a better job as king. How could he allow people to get hurt? He was supposed to help KW not leave and yet she did anyway? Max realizes that Carol is disappointed in him much like he is disappointed in his Mother.
Carol and Max talk about what worries them. “How can guys like us worry about a tiny thing like the sun?” but you know they are worried and worried about their friendships and lives and whether they will be happy.
I wrote in my journal once- ‘how do you turn the worry off?’ That is so beautifully expressed in this scene:
As Carol becomes more upset, Douglas finally tells him that Max is “just a boy, pretending to be a wolf, pretending to be a king”. Isn’t his mother pretending to be a queen?
At least it is that way to Max and she seemingly let’s him down over and over again. She never seems to rescue him. ‘You are out of control” he says to Carol just as his Mom had said to him. Your emotions are out of control!
Carol says, “You were supposed to take care of us. You promised” (gut wrenching part.) all go back to Max’s home life and his mother. His Mother was supposed to make sure bad things didn’t happen to him but they do all the time.
Feeling betrayed Carol says he is going to eat Max just like Max had done earlier to his Mom before he bit her. He then throws his biggest tantrum yet (much similar to the tantrum thrown by Max before being sent to bed without any supper). In his rage Carol rips off Douglas’ arm and chases Max into the forest. Max is then saved by KW who hides him in her stomach. Max listens as Carol and KW have an argument about why she always leaves him.
Like Claire used to be Max’s friend KW has moved on from Carol and they both feel sad about it but it seems necessary for KW to explore new worlds and friendships
Then Max starts to realize how little control his mother has over him and Claire and it is not her fault that they are growing up, becoming more distant. It is also not her fault that she can’t understand or deal with him all the time. He can’t deal with Carol (who is basically Max) so how could his mother? She is also not to blame for his father leaving or all the other hurts in his life.
And just as Carol is hurt and KW runs away, so him and his Mom, experience the same emotions and conflict. He knows just as he couldn’t help Carol be free from pain and neither can his mother. What a realization for a kid! His Mother is fallible and weak but has a good heart.
I think Max see’s the unhappiness of Carol and KW and knows for the first time that his mother is unhappy. He see’s her loneliness All the time he thought she controlled that but it turns out she isn’t in control.
Max understands what it is like for a second to be a parent because he was a king and his his mother has become a real person, a full human being. He decides it is time to go home.
His goodbye to the Wild Things is so touching. He says goodbye to his childhood and the innocence he had when he got there and now must enter the world of adult problems to help his mother. In a way it is kind of like Peter saying goodbye to Neverland.
The ending when Max and his mother reunite is perfect. A child and Mother truly understanding each other as people not simply Role 1- Mother and Role 2- Son. I cry my eyes out for about the last 15 minutes of this movie.
I know its a heady picture and it asks you go along with its premise, to accept unlikable characters, and see them grow, and to not have every question answered It’s the journey of childhood. From angry, happy, sad, worry, confused child to a man or woman trying to rule their mini-worlds as best they can.
We also learn that no matter how noble the intentions of the ruler hurt, anger, betrayal and sadness will happen. That is life. Even God cannot prevent sadness. Life is Where the Wild Things Are.
A similarly polarizing movie is The Tree of Life which also seeks to talk about the human experience through art. Tree of Life says that life is awe inspiring and beautiful. Where the Wild Things Are seeks to talk about human emotions and growth. Both are saying ‘this is how human beings really are…”
It is also a warning to Max of what the emotions can lead to if unchecked and unmolded. All of us feel we could rule our lives the best and resent others telling us what to do. Then we occasionally realize we know nothing and don’t like the person we are turning into. That’s when we need to look at ourselves, or meet our own Wild Things. In the end, the movie is about realizing the humanity (wildness, quietness, fearfullness, all emotions) in others and in ourselves, and how weak we all really are.
Sometimes I think we are too scared of kids feeling these emotions, working through them organically, and temper them with drugs and entertainment? Maybe reconciling them is the key to becoming fully human?
In the end it is a movie about a real person who comes into consciousness with himself. That’s a powerful thing and I am forever moved by it.
So, that’s what I think. Does my take on it make you see the movie even a bit differently? If you dislike it, why?
Also, the music is gorgeous, sets dazzling, acting including child actor are all great, great voice cast. I love it!
INSIDE ALL OF US IS A WILD THING!