Where the Wild Things Are
October 18, 2009

1963. Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are

This is a children's book iconic, so well-known, so beloved ... and so short ... it's hard to believe Hollywood would even attempt to make a movie out of it. Of course, they're making re-makes of re-makes, so I suppose they've totally used up all of their creativity anyway. I could rant, but why waste the energy? We all know Hollywood's been sucking for a long time now and that they're making movies designed to be understood by people who've done so much crack and huffed so much paint they can barely stand upright.

Let's face it. Most Hollywood movies don't encourage thought. Those that do, get panned as too artsy or high-falutin'.

(Yes, I'm generalizing. Overstating the case. That's not really a good thing either, but let's roll with it for a minute.)

Anyhow, back to Sendak. When I saw Todd McFarlane's Where the Wild Things Are toys, I was over the moon. I was teaching at a university and my students were working on their essays during class. I was on a computer in the front of the room, ready to help if they needed anything - a student walked up while I was discovering these toy/statues.

"What's that?"

"Where the Wild Things are action figures."

"What's that?"

I blinked. He had never seen the book. So, the day before Spring Break, I brought the book in and after we'd done a little work, told them they could leave if they wanted, but those who wanted to stay, we'd sit down on the floor and have a little story time. I promised it would be quick. There were a couple of kids who started to leave ... but since the bulk of them were already plopping their butts down on the floor, most stayed. I think only 1 or 2 actually left.

Sketch of Max in his boat

Upon hearing that this book was to be made into a movie, I was furious. And it was going to be a live-action flick instead of animated. I was HORRIFIED.

And then I saw the trailer.

I was hooked and couldn't wait for it to come out.

It was absolutely fantastic.

It is not a typical Hollywood flick.

It is not a movie for children the same age as the book's original audience.

It is primarily a movie for adults, not because it's too scary or inappropriate ... but because kids aren't really the target audience. Spike Jonez is mostly reminding us what it was to be a child. The immediacy of emotion, the attempts to fix everything, the surety that a good story could fix the world just by your own force of will and belief. The mercurial emotions - gleeful one moment and devastated beyond the ability to explain in words the next. In fact, the movie is largely about being without words ... and learning to find words ... and being content knowing that sometimes words are completely unnecessary.

I've seen criticism that this movie encourages bad behaviour in children. Not really, although children do mimic what they see and they are sure to mimic the snowball fights and dirt clod wars and perhaps even the odd moment of biting. But they do this because they are children, just like Max and just like Max they are learning how to deal with their emotions and urges ... and their anger.

That's the core of this flick. How to deal with anger, with relationships, with living in community with other people.

Kids are not born knowing how to deal with anger. They are not born understanding that their actions have consequences both emotional and physical.

Max, in the beginning of the film, is a very angry little boy. He's ultimately pretty good at heart, but he is a wild thing. He is acting out. On the one hand, he wants to fix everything and make everyone happy all of the time. On the other hand (or claw), he doesn't know what to do with the anger he feels when he's lonely or sad or can't help his mom to not be sad. And with all of that confusion and anger and frustration, he behaves, oddly enough, like a child.

This is not to excuse him, mind you. His behaviour is unacceptable. His mother's reactions are not depressing, at least not to me, they're freaking realistic. She is tired. She is stressed. And while the boy is a wild thing ... she is obviously doing something right as he's also kind-hearted (when he thinks things through all the way).

However, children have to act like children in order to learn how they are supposed to behave. And if we ignore bad behaviour, they learn nothing and they act like Charlie Weis when they grow up. This movie does not hit us over the head with the punishments Max gets in order to learn how to behave ... that's a typical Hollywood gambit. Max learns it more organically than that. And sure, it's pretty obvious that there a Wild Thing that rather parallels Max ... but I think the movie manages to make that character an extension of Max's psyche in a way that's more of a literary foil than a dumbed-down version.

It's a film that captured, for me, what it was to be a child. It captured all of the things I promised myself I would never forget - how hard it is when no one has time for you, how impossible it is to explain yourself and what you're thinking and feeling sometimes.

Kids watching this flick may act out for a while after seeing it. Testing boundaries and to a certain extent, feeling that momentary freedom of just acting rather than thinking. The movie walks a very fine line with Max's behaviour. As adults, I don't think we need to see his mother punishing him because really, we get that Max gets it - how bad his behaviour has been. It's subtle, but it's clearly there. Children - well, it depends on the maturity and intellectual capabilities of the specific child (or their attention span - the movie isn't really paced for kids). Some of them will get it. Some of them will think Max got away with murder and that they can as well.

If you take a child to this movie, it's up to us as adults to DISCUSS it with the kid afterward. Not hammer them about what was right or wrong about Max's behaviour. Not point out how much trouble they'd be in if they ever behaved that way. Discuss all of it. Ask them if they ever feel that lonely. If they ever get that terribly out of sorts that they feel like an out-of-control wild thing. Tell them how you used to be. How you sometimes still feel those feelings. And what you do to cope with the feelings and still behave like a proper person instead of a wild thing.

I loved this movie because it's not a passive thing. Sure, you can turn your brain off and watch it if you want. You might even enjoy it that way.

But if you engage with it and with other people ... if you discuss it ... the issues it brings up ...

Well, then it's a film that is as timeless as the book itself. A book which caused quite a bit of controversy itself when it was first published. And even more when it snagged the Caldecott.

One of my favourite bits (and it's giving nothing away, it's depicted on some versions of the movie poster) - is the parallel between Max and a Wild Thing walking through the desert and the very similar poster for the absolutely wretched George Lucas flick. Without overdoing it, Jonez is making a comparison, I think, that each of us has an Anakin/Vader battle of our own. Really, Jonez probably places more emphasis and symbolism on the desert the characters cross and its mere existence on the island of the wild things more than he was making a nerd reference to Episode One, but the visual "one-liner" was just one of many delights I found in the movie. For me, that was a still frame every bit as rich and engaging as a page from Sendak's original book.

I hope the movie does well. Maybe it will encourage Hollywood to make more films that don't require we turn off our brains and mindlessly consume without engagement.

Posted by Red Monkey at October 18, 2009 6:50 PM | People Say I Have ADHD, But I Think - Hey Look, A Chicken | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


timethief said:

I love this kids book and when I heard it had been made into a movie I cringed and told my partner: "There's no way I'm going to see what they do to it!". But now you have given it a good review so well, maybe I'll go see it too, or not. That's an INTJ for you, eh?

Red Monkey says: Heh, I felt the same way at first. Then I saw one of the "trailers" which was actually a bit of trailer and a bit of "The Making of" and it also showed Maurice Sendak. He really liked the film and was one of the producers. And, of course, I saw the Muppets that were the wild things ... and they actually caught Sendak's flair and style quite well, which as much as I love Henson Studios, still surprised me. The movie was shot with actors wearing the costumes, but not the heads (so they could see and move better) and that made a real difference in how the kid was able to interact. He wasn't just having to hit blind marks, he was interacting with the other actors.
October 19, 2009 10:18 PM


Claire said:

I shared the same horror the making the film version of this, but your review has definitely made me want to go and see it.

Loved the point that you made about the parents taking their children and using it as an opportunity to discuss things.

October 20, 2009 12:04 PM


InTheFastLane said:

Yep! Saw it with my boys. One was too young. The other was just right, but we still needed to process the movie.
I wrote something similar myself, after watching the movie this past weekend.

October 23, 2009 7:19 PM


PandoraWilde said:

I haven't seen Where the Wild Things Are, but Hollywood isn't limiting itself to iconic books for ideas for new movies--they're pillaging the anime universe for new movies to launch.

Most hardcore anime fans are having the same reaction to yours when you heard about Sendak's book coming out in a movie. Unfortunately, we're not being pleasantly surprised--instead we're wishing to Dog they'd quit this shit.

October 27, 2009 4:39 PM


Nance said:

Awwww I wish we had seen this together. For one thing, It would have meant we would have been in the same state. BTW, I hope your bday was fabulous. Nance

November 3, 2009 5:16 AM


Theresa111 said:

Did I miss your Happy Birthday? I am sorry. I wanted to see this movie but Joe told me it was just for kids. Now I know I was right in my desire to see this flick. Thanks for the review! Take care and Happy Holidays. Oh, BTW, I am going to be teaching how to make hand made candy like truffles and more, next weekend at BC's food site Half Hour Meals dot com. If you are interested, it is something fun for two or more. Stop by and in a few days I will have the info up in the forum. HBDay Red Monkey!!! :D

November 4, 2009 8:40 PM
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