You make my heart sing. You make everything… groovy.
Like most folks, I discovered Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are when I was a kid, and I delighted at the simple story and the imaginative artwork. I was told, at the time, that numerous adults had rallied in opposition to the book, wanting it banned from schools, allegedly because they felt it’s “too scary” for children. I didn’t understand that then, and I still don’t today. The titular wild things are monsters, to be sure, but they’re the friendliest monsters this side of Sesame Street.
Revisiting the book years later, I can see some interesting craftsmanship behind the narrative simplicity. Anyone with an interest in comic books should check out how the book handles its justification between words and pictures. It begins text-heavy, with small illustrations. As the story progresses, the art gets larger and larger on the page, with decreasing amounts of text. The center of the book has no words at all, just giant illustrations filling the entire page. Then, the pattern reverses, and the book ends where it began, with small art and emphasis on the words. You could argue that this tug of war between the words and pictures represents the dueling nature of reality (the text) versus fantasy (the art).
That brings us to the 2009 film version, which also establishes a split between fantasy and reality. The combination of the two is not as cleanly balanced as it was in the book, though, and that’s where things—wild and otherwise—get interesting.
Young Max (Max Records) is energetic, rambunctious, creative, and starved for imagination. His single mom has little time for him, his older sister wants nothing to do with him, and other kids don’t know what to make of him. After the frustration and loneliness gets to him, he runs off into the night in a fit of anger. Magically, Max crosses a vast ocean and ends up in a wilderness inhabited by a group of large monsters—the wild things. Max convinces them he’s their king, and he takes on the leadership role, hoping to convince his new pals to all get along and have fun together. Max especially connects with Carol (James Gandolfini, The Sopranos), who is both brutish and kind hearted. Can Max make a new home for himself as a wild thing, or will his other life call him away?
Seems like every critic who takes on Where the Wild Things Are has to theorize about what the movie is really about. Some believe it’s really about male aggression, others thinks it’s really about the power of imagination, and still others argue that it’s really about childhood trauma. What do I think? Considering that, like the book, this is high craftsmanship devoted to a simplistic narrative, I’ll take a simplistic approach. Where the Wild Things Are works for me a character study. It’s taking a deep look inside the head of one character, Max.
As many others have pointed out, each of the wild things represent a different aspect of Max’s personality. This is seen right away as Carol’s destructive yet playful nature mirrors Max’s own. When we meet Carol, he’s smashing up the huts the wild things sleep in. He’s doing so as sort of a game, but one that’s built up to seriousness in his mind. Contrast this with earlier in the film, when Max builds forts in and around his house, ones that no one but him is impressed with. No one “gets” the games he plays, because any rules or logic behind them exist only in his imagination, one not immediately shared by others. He later enlists the wild things in building a fort, a real one this time, after learning that Carol also builds things as well as destroys them. Seeing Carol’s creative side brings out Max’s creative side as well. Using this creativity is not just an excuse to have fun, but also to unite the wild things.
Some of the wild things actually have some backstory that happens before Max runs into them. They’re not all together as a group, and there’s some tension. As their new king, Max makes it his business to use his own brand of fun and games to bring them all together. The question, then, is why is this so important to him? Going back to the beginning of the film, the only connections Max makes with others are fleeting, as others either ignore him, or are a part of his games on a short-lived basis. His uniting the wild things into a single group acts as his desire to unite the disparate elements of his own life. He longs to be the center of attention, but, before that can happen, he has to have a complete audience surrounding him. No one’s the center of attention when some eyes are pointed elsewhere. Later, Max attempts another shot at a reconciling the wild things by a good old fashioned dirt clod fight, and although it’s good fun at first, it goes too far and feelings get hurt. Not only does this speak to the usual childhood playground dilemmas, but it’s another example of Max hoping to unite the wild things as a singular group. When it doesn’t go as planned, Max’s frustration is understandable.
Is the movie too scary for kids, what with the giant monsters and all? I don’t think so. The real question is whether the movie is too sad for kids. There’s a strong feeling of somberness throughout the movie, even during what would otherwise be the upbeat, playful moments. Max’s sadness and misery is what drives him to the land of the wild things, and it’s what urges him on to become their king and to unite them. As he learns about the different wild things and each of their quirks and problems, their sadness adds to his sadness, which adds to the audience’s sadness. When there should be wonder and magic and whimsy in a movie like this, there’s instead loneliness and frustration and heartache. The movie is directed and co-written by Spike Jonze, a guy who makes movies about sad, miserable people, namely the ones appearing in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. This one doesn’t have the narrative oddities of the scripts by Charlie Kaufman, but it does have a similar downbeat tone, despite the touches of humor and playfulness.
Max Records inhabits the fictional Max excellently. He excellently sells all the emotional highs and lows the character goes through. Catherine Keener (The Soloist) shows both kindness and sternness as the mother, so that she’s more than just the stereotype “jerk parent” that sometimes inhabits kids’ movies. If you’re curious about Mark Ruffallo (Zodiac), know that he’s only on screen for about a minute. Gandolfini, meanwhile, and the other actors who voice the wild things are good as well, giving each one its own identity. I was skeptical about Gandolfini, considering the type of character he’s usually cast as, but it was great to see him go against type, and make Carol endearing without being cutesy. The look of the wild things is interesting. They were created with a combination of CGI and practical costumes, so that they’re genuinely interacting with the environment, including rolling around in the dirt and even splashing around in the water at the beach. Their faces, though, are animated, giving their expressions some elasticity and a feeling of otherworldliness.
At one point, Max and Carol see a giant “dog” wandering in the wilderness. What is that thing, and what does it have to do with anything? Are we to believe it’s a parallel to the dog in the opening scene? Speaking of which, whatever happened to that dog? We never see it again.
I found it a little tricky trying to determine the picture quality on the DVD. There seemed to be a lot of softness and occasional grain, but perhaps that was intentional on the filmmakers’ part, especially with all of the light brown and grey colors seen throughout the movie. The sound is clear and clean, making the most of acoustic score by Carter Burwell and Karen O. They’ve taken a different approach with the extras, with the behind the scenes footage packaged together as a group of artsy short films directed by Lance Bangs. Amusing, but not very informative.
This is one of those movies that’s going to be interpreted in various ways. Different viewers are going to reach different conclusions. Because this is a simple narrative with some big ideas lurking behind it, I’ve taken a similar approach, by looking at it as a simple character study. You might see something totally different, and it might affect you in a different way. That’s good though, because some movies should be open to multiple interpretations—wild or otherwise.