Maurice Sendak’s poetic, luxuriantly illustrated Where the Wild Things Are is revered as a childhood classic, but I think it speaks more powerfully to grown-ups than to children, or at least children of the age for picture books. I’ve met grown-ups who don’t like it, but I suspect they wouldn’t have liked it as kids either. If a child doesn't like it, there is always the chance he will grow into it a few years down the road. If kids do like it, it may be that they grasp that there is something there they don’t quite understand, something waiting for them on some future rereading.
What the book’s youngest fans will make of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, I have no idea. It is such a different animal, primal but thoughtful and sad, visually stunning but talky and messily personal — the most grown-up childhood fantasy since E.T.. There is nothing pat or pandering about it; it is like a story told by your uncle that your mother wouldn’t approve of him telling, which is why he tells it, and why you want to hear it and don’t want to at the same time.
Jonze’s film is enamored with the book, but not beholden to it. The film actually jettisons the iconic scene in which wild young Max, sent to his room without supper, watches his bedposts branch into trees and the walls recede as a forest swallows his room. Now Max (Max Records, nine years old when shooting began) runs away into the night into a forest where he finds the boat that carries him away to Where the Wild Things Are.
The Wild Things themselves — an ideal blend of costume puppetry with computer-enhanced facial expressions — look as if they burst from Sendak’s crosshatched pages, and while they’re no less alarming than their literary counterparts, they’re also more complicated and harder to manage.
So is Max’s life. He still charges around the house in his beloved wolf suit terrorizing the dog, building a blanket fort, and threatening to eat up his loving but exasperated mother (Catherine Keener). On the other hand, his father is absent (no explanation), his mother brings home her work troubles as well as her new beau (Mark Ruffalo), and his teenaged sister (Pepita Emmerichs) lets him down at a moment of unexpected calamity.
At school, Max’s teacher muses alarmingly about the inevitable death of the Sun, and how it will take the Earth with it when it goes — though by then, he adds uncomfortingly, humanity will likely have succumbed to some other disaster. This speech strikes a chord in Max’s psyche, and even the dominant Wild Thing — the one with the sweater stripes and thatch of black hair, here named Carol and voiced by James Gandolfini — is taken aback by the revelation of cosmic mortality.
Carol frets about the vast desert encroaching on the Wild Things’ forest, broodingly observing that the sand used to be rocks, and someday it will only be dust — and what comes after dust? The added notion that the Sun is dying compounds his anxiety. In Carol’s mind it rolls together with his other anxieties: KW — the Thing with long red hair, voiced by Lauren Ambrose — is off on her own, the group is falling apart, their grandiose plans aren’t turning out as hoped … and now on top of all that there’s the dying Sun to worry about? Now there’s a wild thing to think about.
Max is imaginative, high-spirited but sensitive, and screenwriters Jonze and Dave Eggers put you in his corner from the first scene. A snowball ambush starts playfully but ends badly for Max, and then in his hurt and pique Max does something to get even with his sister that can’t be undone. Both moments made me wince, not because of what happens to Max physically, but because they pack the sting of a white-hot childhood memory seared into your mind, a place in your psyche where you are forever that distressed child.
Max wants escape, and the forest, the boat and the island of the Wild Things can be seen as a flight into fantasy. But it’s not a fantasy of comforting wish fulfillment. He finds the Things directionless and irascible, and most of them initially want to eat him. In the book Max dominates the Things with the “magic trick” of an unblinking stare, but in the film he has to convince them that his magical powers are greater than that.
After a hilarious fourth-grade volley of escalating boasts, the Things are willing to contemplate making him their king. Carol, though, wants to know if his powers are any good against sadness and loneliness. “I have a sadness shield,” Max ventures unconvincingly, but the Things are willing to go along with it for now.
If the realm of the Wild Things were wish fulfillment, that world itself would be Max’s sadness shield, but it’s not that simple. Accordingly, Max and the Things embark on an ambitious project to create a special place where “only things you want to happen will happen” — a fantastic secret fortress, a world within their world within a world, where perhaps they will find the “sadness shield” Max promised.
The Things are potent symbols that refuse to yield to a single interpretation. Carol blends Max’s angry, destructive impulses and anxieties with Max’s mother’s concern and, dimly, the reassuring voice of the father who isn’t there. It’s not hard to see where Carol and KW’s quarrels come from, and KW’s absences are the flip side of Carol’s surrogate fatherhood, but Max’s sister is also in KW, off cavorting with her new friends and leaving Carol, and thus Max, in the lurch.
Among the most revelatory moments are an outburst from Judith (the rhino-nosed one, voiced by Catherine O’Hara), the harshest and most cynical of the Wild Things, following a taunting match with Max. "You’re not supposed to yell back at me!” she screams. “You have to just listen and love me anyway, because that’s your job!” It is his own voice, uttering his own unspoken plea to his mother. In another scene, Max flings at Carol the very words his mother yelled at him: “You’re out of control!”
The movie is full of wonderful visions, from the burying of Max beneath a heap of Things (perhaps the most sadness-shielding moment in the film) to Carol’s tabletop model-building and the large-scale fortress the Things set about building, both of which have a nest-like textured look that evokes Sendak’s crosshatching pen-and-ink work. Max Records is ideal as Max, one of the most unaffected child actor performances since E.T.
Like E.T., which explicitly referenced Peter Pan, Where the Wild Things Are is indebted to J. M. Barrie’s classic tale. The realm of the Wild Things is wondrous but unsettling and sad, and at one point Max tells KW, “I wish you all had a mother,” just as Neverland is a heartless place because there are no mothers there.
Watching the film, at times I wished for something closer to Sendak, something simpler and less talky, with more attention to the book's most striking images: not just the missing bedroom scene, but the sea-monster Thing that greets Max before he makes land; the Things swinging through the treetops like monkey bars during the Wild Rumpus; the sweater-striped Thing (Carol) bowing in courtly fashion to the newly crowned Max. Yet put the book aside and watch the film as a Thing unto itself, as a better cousin of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, or a Muppet-ier cousin of E.T., and I think it is something rather wonderful.
In a word, the great difference between Sendak’s book and Jonze’s film is that the book is about anger, while the film is as much about sadness. Here is a film broken-hearted over the messiness of the world. It is sad, and beautiful, and true.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.