If the children don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
–Arcade Fire, “Wake Up”
Playing alone on the sidewalk near his home, nine-year-old Max (Max Records) is at a loss. His sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) has just dismissed him and his mom (Catherine Keener) is at work. And so Max directs his frustration at the thing in front of him, a fence. “You’re just a fence!” he yells. “You can go play with your own fence friends!” And with that, Max lowers his head and kicks, hard. The fence doesn’t move.
Max tends to feel opposite of everything and everyone around him. And throughout Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze’s much-anticipated film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, he’s looking for something else. Bright, curious, and adrift, the boy is in motion from the pre-credits start, chasing his dog through the house, the adventure filmed in close, uproariously close shots. As he gasps and laughs, accompanied by a percussive soundtrack his behavior, energetically giddy and childish, isn’t exactly “good.” When he catches up with his pet, they roll and wrestle on the floor, bumping furniture and oblivious to consequences.
Plainly, Max seeks companionship, friends or maybe a family, imagined if not “real.” His is not an unusual circumstance, of course, and many films — targeted at children or adults or both — take up the stories of lonely kids with lively imaginations. The backstory for Max is briefly sketched: his sister’s friends upset him, his dad remains unseen, designated only by a globe he cherishes, inscribed, “To Max, owner of this world, love, dad.” His mother is distracted, first by an assignment from work that keeps her seated at her desk at home while her son crawls underneath, playing with her pedded toes and gazing upwards (the point of view shots here, his and hers, are aptly charming and poignant).
The tipping point comes when another of mom’s distractions appears. While Max stands in the living room doorway, his wolf costume frayed and his face anxious, his mother’s boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) nuzzles her and whispers in her ear. She laughs, then heads to the kitchen to make dinner; Max’s efforts to get her attention — climbing on the counter, yelling at her (“Woman! Feed me!”), and finally hitting and biting her. “You’re out of control!” she yelps.
Indeed. This is the crux of Max’s story, his lack of structure, attention, and control. It’s also the movie’s way to get on to the next bit, his voyage to the fantastical place “where the wild things are.” Following a rush through dark woods, he discovers a boat and takes off, sailing over the sea for several days and nights, landing on an island populated by large, wild and excellently rendered creatures (through combinations of CGI, animatronics, and puppets). Watching them from behind a brush cover, Max is entranced by the lumbering, angry Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini). Furious over the loss of someone named KW, he’s smashing his compatriots’ homes, toppling trees, and throwing large, damaging rocks. Aha, Max’s face reveals, these are feelings I can understand.
Such feelings — acted out so loudly, raucously, and repeatedly — are at the center of Where the Wild Things Are. When these feelings show up in most so-called children’s movies, they’re treated as deviance, as reasons for punishment and problems to be solved. Kids need to behave, to be in control, and kids’ movies teach this lesson incessantly. The mere fact that Where the Wild Things Are considers Max’s confusion and upset seriously, without condemning him, is enough to commend it. That it also illustrates them, with lots of imagination and respect, is even better.
It’s clear enough that all the creatures Max meets exhibit facets of the world back home, including the independent-minded KW (Lauren Ambrose) and Carol’s birdish best friend Douglas (Chris Cooper), as well as the goat Alexander (Paul Dano), petulant Judith (Catherine O’Hara), and her loyal companion Ira (Forest Whitaker), who happens to be skilled at punching holes in walls and trees. Worried when the monsters say they’ve decided to eat him, Max — thinking fast — convinces them he’s a king, with experience exploding the heads of Vikings. The wild things change their course, adopting him as their own king. He assigns tasks, organizes games (like war, with clods of dirt), raises dire if not exactly urgent questions (is the sun actually dying, as his science teacher says?), and hopes that, unlike home, here everyone will get along.
This is key, for the creatures worry about disharmony and chaos, even as they revel in wildness. And as they voice their fear of Carol being “out of control,” they’re speaking to Max’s layers of thinking about his own behavior: he doesn’t mean to frighten his mother or reject Claire, but he can’t say, even to himself, what he actually wants. Being king and feeling responsible, he begins to see effects in others, his own pain and fear and anger reflected. Even if each rambunctious episode of destruction or aggression, wrecking his sister’s room or kicking the fence or sending his subjects forth on a “wild rumpus,” allows a moment of relief, what happens after is hard.
Even as they absorb it, neither Max nor Carol Max articulates this lesson. And however much it makes sense for kids who might be watching — who can recognize the joy of running and jumping and flinging — the metaphor of the wild things is aimed at adults (whether or not these viewers appreciate the “big picture” allusions to real world aggressions and posturings). Max’s conversations with Carol or KW, slow and elliptical, won’t necessarily hold the attention of eight- or nine-year-olds used to seeing hamsters shoot rockets or Hannah Montana change her personality with her wig. But the wild things, however complicated and perverse, however unresolved, don’t condescend to viewers of any age. It’s good to see Max back with his mother in the end, even if she’s asleep and he’s alone again. Whatever he’s brought back with him, he’s still at a loss.