In 2009 Spike Jonze co-wrote and directed an adaptation of the classic children’s book Where The Wild Things Are. Instead of going the traditional route and making a film with a clear plot line, wise-cracking sidekicks, and a happy ending he chose to create a world filled with complicated feelings of sadness, loneliness, and anger punctuated with brief glimmers of frenetic glee. Jonze created a film about the turmoil of pre-adolescence by showing us a world filled with fantastical creatures that mirror our own insecurities and feelings of helplessness. It may be the guise of a children’s movie, and many of its themes and situations will be familiar to children, but this is a film that is about children as much as it is a film for them; it is a visually and psychologically interesting film that refuses to dumb anything down for its audience.
Max is an emotionally troubled and lonely young boy who is often left to his own devices. He spends his time building igloos, playing in blanket forts, and pretending to be a wild animal– isolating activities that double as a shield from the outside world. Max longs for the attention of his older sister, whom we suspect he was close with recently, but she has grown out of playing with her 9 year old sibling. Max’s mother is a busy and stressed single parent who works all day and tries to find a semblance of a social life during the night. This leaves precious little time for Max, but she does try. We are introduced to Max’s quiet and contemplative side early on but we also see him in full wolf regalia snarling and snapping and brandishing a fork as he chases down the family dog. There is a rage inside Max. A wildness.
One night after failing to get his mother’s attention regarding his newly constructed fort Max dons his wolf suit to investigate just what she is up too. Seeing her with her new boyfriend Max feels betrayed and angry and attempts to assert his dominance as the “man of the house” by standing on the table and shouting for his dinner (where he gets this idea of manliness is unknown but could be an insight into his parents divorce). The scene ends with Max biting his mother but immediately regretting it when he sees her reaction. He tears off through the door and down the street while the music rises and takes on a frantic pace. Ending up in a wooded area next to the water we see Max violently let out his anger and fear yelling “I hate you!” as he breaks tree branches and stamps the ground. Whether he is referring to himself, his mother, or her boyfriend is left up to us to decide. As he begins to calm down he discovers a boat floating nearby; this is his ticket out of this situation and the beginning of his adventure. In the original book Max imagines the whole story; here Jonze is less obvious about whether Max is lost in his imagination or is somehow magically transported to a new world.
Upon arriving on the island Max spies the large monstrous Wild Things as they stand around and watch Carol (voiced perfectly by a melancholy James Gandolfini) destroy their spherical homes in a rage that revolves around his feelings towards another Wild Thing’s, KW (Lauren Ambrose), seclusion in recent days. I interpreted the Wild Things as being both representations of the people in Max’s life as well as manifestations of his psyche. The relationship between Carol and KW can easily mirror that of Max and his older sister or mother: they were once very close but are now growing apart because of newer relationships and Carol/Max is left sad, angry, and alone. In their way the The Wild Things also represent Max’s own id driven self; they live a life free from rules and restrictions but without appropriate authority they indulge whatever urge they feel and resort to destruction out of instinct.
The world which the Wild Things live is lovingly crafted in its bleakness. It’s dark, dirty, and seemingly equally filled with forested areas, barren places, and desert. We see very little actual beauty on the island, save for some flowers that Carol includes in their fort and a couple of shots taken during the day when they’re all running and playing in a brief period of true happiness. This is not a fantasy world filled with lush meadows and vibrant colours but instead a claustrophobic look into the imagination of a small boy that feels the world doesn’t notice him.
Max soon convinces the Wild Things that he is a king, and that because he has special powers he should be the one in charge. He becomes the controlling factor in the group (a figurative parent or the superego controlling the id). He claims to be able to defend against loneliness and will use his “sadness shield” to protect them all. As their ruler, Max acts as he thinks an adult should; he asserts his power over them by curbing their destructive nature and convincing them to build a giant fort for all of them to live in and “sleep in a real pile”. This is Max wanting to forego his destructive nature and build something to keep him safe, a place where he can be apart of a family.
The Wild Things themselves are large and foreboding, much like Max’s anger and frustration, at first but each have their own idiosyncrasies and neuroses. Each Wild Thing is a different size and shape and are performed by a mixture of actors in elaborate suits and computer imagery (mainly for excellent expressions on the Things faces). Having these giant creatures be “real” adds so much credibility to their characters. Max’s interactions with these muppet-esq creatures is so much more believable than it would’ve been had they been merely CG concoctions. There is a sense of realness to each Wild Thing, a tangibility to each of them that makes them distinct characters and not just constructs.
As ruler Max decides that they should have a dirt clod war and even goes as far as to choose the “bad guys” and the “good guys” which somewhat fractures the group into opposing camps. These war games end badly when things get out of hand and feelings (and a Wild Thing) are hurt. This leaves the group divided and angry with Max for not protecting them like he promised.This is the beginning of their realization that Max might not be as powerful as he claims and that maybe their problems are more than one person can handle. It’s also the beginning of Max’s realization that being in charge can be just as lonely as being on your own.
After discovering that Max is just a regular kid or as one of them puts it: “just a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king”, the Wild Things fall further into a depressive funk. Their king as let them down and now everything seems like it’s going to get much worse. Carol feels the most betrayed by this revelation and flies into rage, threatening to eat Max. Having to flee his friend, Max finds refuge in the mouth of KW; an especially difficult choice seeing as how many times he has been threatened with being eaten since he arrived on the island. Safe inside KW, Max overhears Carol’s sad omission that “[he] just want[s] [them] all to be together” further echoing Max’s own thoughts on his family life. This scene is the conclusion of Max’s journey for me: he tells KW that Carol doesn’t mean to be like he is and that he is just scared but loves her like family to which KW relies that “being family is hard”. This simple sentence sums up the entire movie: all of Max’s anger, fear, and negative feelings stem directly from his feelings of abandonment concerning his parents relationship and his sister’s growing distance from him. It’s here that Max realizes the consequences of his actions and how how his mother must feel after what he did.
The film ends when Max realizes he has to relinquish his power over the Wild Things and return home if he wants to fix the rift in his family. He says goodbye to the Wild Things, metaphorically ridding himself of his wild urges, and boards his small boat. He slowly floats away when Carol approaches looking sad and forlorn. His goodbye to Max is a wistful howl which Max returns with a knowing sort of smile as his boat takes him out to sea. Carol and KW share a look that tells us maybe they can patch up their relationship but maybe not. We see Max happily sailing home on calm seas, contrasting the raging storm of his original voyage. Upon arriving home he is greeted warmly and without reproach by his mother who hugs him and removes his wolf hood: solidifying his return to his less id driven wild self. The final scene has Max eating soup while his mother falls asleep on the table. Some have said the ending suggests that Max will continue in his wild ways because he doesn’t apologize for running away, or for biting his mother, or for acting out. But much like the shared look between KW and Carol I think that even though it’s left unsaid there is a forgiving nature to the scene and I believe the rift has been repaired and that Max has learned a valuable lesson about what family really is.
This can be a difficult movie in a lot of ways and its tone and themes may seem at times at odds with its beginnings as a children’s picture book, but a lot of the imagery and meaning come directly from the Sendak original. Director Spike Jonze mixes these darker elements with chaotic bursts of fun and action punctuated by an exciting array of music from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O. Coupled with co-writer Dave Eggers, he is able to craft a truly original and breathtaking vision of the classic children’s tale that both manages to be a whimsical children’s journey and a deeper look into the psyche of a lonely little boy. Where the Wild Things Are can be an unsettling film if you’re looking for simple children’s tale but it has a lot to offer for kids and adults alike while not talking down to either audience.