Where the Wild Things Are isn’t a kids’ movie, it’s “a movie about childhood.” That’s how director Spike Jonze describes his full-length screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic 1963 children’s book.
Sendak’s roughly ten-sentence story tells the tale of a rambunctious little boy named Max whose mother sends him to bed without any supper for being an unmanageable “wild thing.” In Max’s room, a thick jungle grows, and he is transported to the land of the Wild Things: big, lumpy chimeras, each with its own motley mix of goat horns, chicken feet, and furred tails. Tenacious Max stares into their eyes without blinking, and is thus crowned king. Yet he decides to abdicate his throne when he smells something delicious cooking “all around from far across the world,” and returns home to a still-hot dinner.
Obviously, Jonze has a few things of his own to say. On the movie screen, the world of the Wild Things pullulates with glorious rock faces and elaborate tunnels. Still, the land feels strangely barren, strewn with fallen trees and wide, beige deserts. The gritty palette consists of mostly flat browns, and even the leafy greens are a darker shade, with only occasional flowers thrown in for contrast. This world is not meant to be admired passively: The forest trees are for smashing; the rocks are for throwing. Max’s signature wolf pajamas are grimy, and his hair is greasy. Even the wild things themselves, though recognizably designed by the Muppet-making Jim Henson Creature Shop, have a filthily real look to their fantastic forms. Like any imaginary world worth a visit, its magic lies in being realistic and digestible.
Max (played by newcomer Max Reynolds) is a kinetic child with the sort of pale, translucent face that seems to flush almost instantly with the red heat of tears. Max defies the saccharine child-protagonist mold. Between his tantrums and his self-preserving lies, he captures the ferocious vigor of little boys in a way that Hollywood is usually uncomfortable showing in any character but a schoolyard bully. Some may find him more difficult to like than the oddly composed child-actors usually put on screen, but letting this boy be a boy is what makes the movie true and exciting.
To turn a two-minute story into a 94-minute movie, much of the mystery did sadly have to go. The enigmatic, dreamy tale becomes a more concrete narrative. Far from being anonymous beasts, the Wild Things become unique personalities voiced by an all-star cast that includes everyone from James Gandolfini to Forest Whitaker. With their familiarity, Max’s Wild Things are far from exotic. His imaginary land, though initially conceived as an escape, mirrors all of the problems of his own home. He leaves a place where he gets angry because he can’t gain the attention of his mother and sister whenever he wishes; he encounters the same struggle within the family of Wild Things.
Though one might view the story as a paean to imagination, it is more fundamentally a story about anger. Max’s trip is not a flight of cheerful fancy, but rather a continuation of his temper tantrum. His steam to continue his adventure runs out, but more in the fashion of a thrashing child crying himself into exhaustion than that of one whose wants have been satisfied. Yes, moments of exhilarating beauty are strewn about the film, but it is ultimately about the dark side rather than the wonder of childhood. While adults love to idealize the innocent spark that lies in children, every parent knows that children are more like barbarians than cherubs. Real childhood memories often hold as much terror as wonder.
Is the movie too dark for children? Maurice Sendak has said that he would tell any parent who would make such a query, “Go to hell. That’s a question I will not tolerate.” It is a good answer — especially considering how dark most lasting children’s literature has been, from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Charlotte’s Web. Jonze phrased it a bit more diplomatically, reminding an interviewer: “We don’t feel things more as we get older. We just have a better understanding of how to navigate those feelings, and a better sense of how to navigate our relationships and separate our emotions from them.”
In the opening of Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton described an adventure story he had always wished to write — the story of a man who leaves home, journeys all around the globe, and lands back in England under the impression it is a foreign land. Chesterton described the great joy “to brace oneself up to find New South Wales and then realize . . . that it was old South Wales.” Just so, Max travels to the land of the Wild Things and finds his own problems. Perhaps filmgoers, too, will travel back to their childhoods in watching Where the Wild Things Are and be shaken out of their escapism to discover that that time wasn’t so different from being a grown-up. We’ve just grown to understand our Wild Things better.
– Emily Karrs is an associate editor of National Review Online.