Rat Boy's Braindump
the adventures of a nerd who never learned to shut up

“You know, you’re the first king we haven’t eaten.”

I got to see Where the Wild Things Are a couple weeks back. Like Coraline, it’s a book-to-film adaptation with some pretty major involvement and input from the author of the story it’s based on. Maurice Sendak has been trying to make this movie for almost thirty years. The stage show didn’t last long and is near-impossible to find, and the movie has usually been deemed too frightening for children for most studios to greenlight it. Finally, Spike Jonez (who I kept getting confused with Spike Lee for a while) decided he was going to make the movie, and what a movie it was.

I wasn’t even convinced it was going to actually come out. Rumors of drastic rewrites and reshoots at a time when the film should have already been done, and a leaked “finished version” of some special effects that turned out to be a practice shot that should never have left the studio had me convinced that the film was in some serious trouble and probably wouldn’t get made. But now, thanks to some genius work from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and some amazing acting from Max Records, who plays Max, we have another fantastic book-to-movie adaptation to watch.

Max is kind of a messed-up kid, in the sense that he doesn’t understand himself or the things he does. Sometimes he just wants attention, sometimes his desire to have fun prevents him from realizing that what he does is destructive or hurts other people, and sometimes he doesn’t know what he wants, only that he wants something. So to put it simply, Max is very much a child, and very much a human being in general. We see Max in one of his destructive phases as the movie starts out, running around his house and scaring the brains out of his family’s dog. We also see Max’s older sister, obviously a new addition to the story. She is older than Max, already more interested in talking on the phone than playing with her little brother, and this is another thing that bothers Max. He has grown up with her around, and I would imagine he’s used to seeing her occasional disdain for him tempered by a willingness to play a game with him or two. But with that phase entirely gone, the chances of him getting to spend time with her (in the only way he knows how, at least) have vanished.
So, Max does something elaborate and drastic in a last-ditch attempt to gain some approval: he designs a snow fort of such epic and massive proportions, in his own mind at least, that no living being could resist its siren song. When his sister doesn’t take an interest in the greatest snow fort ever built by human hands, Max is obviously crushed.

Max’s plan then becomes one that many people are familiar with: impress his sister with a show of force. His snowball armaments and his icy fortifications will have to do the trick where a persuasive description of his accomplishments did not. So as his sister and her friend are leaving the house, accompanied by two boys, Max ambushes them with snowballs. For a while this works. The older boys play along for a bit, throwing snowballs back at Max, and he is very pleased at the attention he is getting – after all, any attention is positive attention, right? When Max retreats to his snow fort, however, and the two older boys smash it to the ground with him inside, things get a little…frustrating for Max.

His sister turned against him, his mother still not home to console him when he needs it, Max’s only recourse is to break something. And in this case, the object of his destructive urge is his older sister’s room. He spares no expense, so to speak, on this little foray into his sister’s personal area, and is sure to break the valentine he made her a few years back. When his mother gets home, of course, he regrets this action a little more.

Max’s bad day continues. More destruction, more noise, and more anger he doesn’t have a reason for all rear their ugly heads and finally Max hurts the one person who, to him, represents everything good and right in the world: his mother. Possibly more surprised by his own actions than by his mother’s response to them, Max runs out of the house, dressed in his wolf suit, and, well, if you’ve read the book you should know where this is going.

I am evidently one of the few people who didn’t find the book scary as a young child. I read it to myself and noted the Wild Things, the giant monsters, as being very interestingly designed but not inherently frightening or menacing. Especially when Sendak makes clear that Max ‘tamed them’ with his wild stare. After all, if you know what the word ‘tame’ means, you know a tame animal is generally not one to be afraid of. The Wild Things in the film, however, are definitely not tame. They are wild animals in every sense of the word. Though they have names and are self-aware, like Max, they are not always aware of why they want the things that they want, or why they do the things that they do. Things are changing for the Wild Things. Members of their group who used to be best friends are no longer speaking, and unhappiness with this state of events has lead to one of their number leaving the group entirely. Carol, the lead Wild Thing, is Max’s right-hand-monster when Max proclaims himself King of the Wild Things, as Carol has been unhappy for a very long time and is at a loss as to how he can possibly fix it. When a King shows up, however, with all kinds of awesome power and big promises, Carol jumps at the opportunity to set things right with some outside help.
Carol is a big guy. A very big guy. Like the other Wild Things, he’s about twice Max’s size and could easily bite his head off if given half a chance. Or less than half of one. We see very early on, with some fantastic acting and reacting by Max Records, that the Wild Things are dangerous and would have no trouble at all killing Max, should the mood strike them. Like him, they’re not truly conscious of their place in the world or the impact they have on their surroundings. Things that are permanent don’t really seem so, and it’s only towards the end of the film that permanence is really driven home for the Wild Things when one of them is severely hurt during an argument.

This is not a children’s movie. It is a movie about childhood, but I feel like a lot of the story is too heavy-handed for a child to really get into. Being scared on occasion is very good for a child (see my review of Coraline) but being depressed? Definitely less useful. And the world of the Wild Things can be very depressing. The Wild Things are dangerous animals, made more so by the fact that they live in the same emotionally turbulent state as Max himself: not sure what they want from the world or what the world wants from them, and only just coming to terms with the fact that they won’t always be aware of the reasons they do things. I believe at one point Carol asks Max why things have to change at all, and rather than say “They just do.” or something along those lines, indicating the adult-like resignation with the world being pretty uncontrollable most of the time, Max has no answer for him. Which is the most appropriate response of all, given who Max is and where he is in the world.
At this point I feel like I’m meandering. I don’t think I’ve stayed in sight of my original thoughts on the film, except for maybe in this last paragraph, which I guess is kind of fitting because Max is also learning that he can’t control very much of his own world. I am going to try to get back on track, though. Max isn’t aware at his age that eventually, a time comes where you can have a little more influence on what happens to you in life, but I definitely am.

Max’s time with the Wild Things is very short: a couple days at most, if the number of sunrises and sunsets we are shown while he’s on the island are any indication of the passage of time. I am pretty sure that the events on the Wild Things’ island did all actually happen, as Max seems both matured and scarred when he returns home at the end of the film, but the way it is edited still leaves me with a few doubts. I don’t see much of a point in Max having a fantasy like this, though: unlike the book, where it’s all pretty obviously Max’s imagination and a good way for him to vent, the Wild Things in the film are only occasionally willing to comply with his wishes. Only Carol, who is the most like Max and therefore the one he clashes with the most, is the willing servant to the new King – to a point. Max eventually realizes he can’t fix everything – or even very much at all for his new friends. They are simply too large and too unreasonable for him, like the older boys he threw snowballs at or his own sister.
I know a lot of people have spent more time wondering why the Wild Things are, so to speak – why they act the way that they do, and what each of them means or represents in Max’s mind. I don’t think this is the right way to go about analyzing the book, though, because it is very clearly all Max’s dream and just a way for him to get his frustrations out. The film’s world, in which each of the Wild Things is a character, an individual with motivations and thoughts unique to itself, is much better for that sort of thing. At the same time, however, given my perception that the Wild Things and their island are real, I don’t feel like it’s appropriate to try and analyze them as parts of Max’s psyche. They can be looked at as different stages of development in the human mind, I suppose, if you <i>like</i> that sort of thing, but I prefer to take the world as it is presented to me: Max found an island of creatures who act and behave much like he does, coincidentally or otherwise, and tried to live with them until he realized he couldn’t do so. He probably learned from his experiences there, though I have my doubts as to whether or not the Wild Things did, but I’m not going to randomly assign terms like superego or id to the Wild Things. That would just be silly.

Where The Wild Things Are is an excellent film. As a meditation on childhood, it is spot-on: I was Max for a good three years as a child, from about six to nine, and the Wild Things were either my friends or the neighbors I wanted to be my friends: the larger, older, and more powerful kids who, if not able to understand everything around them, certainly seemed capable of beating the world into submission if need be. And then there’s Max’s mother. She represents, to Max, everything that is good in the world. She is almost the only consistent positive in his life, and so when Max lashes out at his mother it leaves even him feeling disgusted and angry with himself, much like my relationship with my mother when I was little. If Max had a father in the picture I would have felt a lot more sympathy for him, because then the correlation between him and me would have been that much stronger. But I have a suspicion that each of the characters in the film will resonate with different people for the same reasons Max resonated with me: there was a time when that is who I was, and sometimes I may still be that person. I think that the people who consider this movie too dark and depressing have missed out on its message: that sometimes the world is dark and depressing, and doesn’t make any sense, but despite that things are going to be okay eventually. Max got to go home, and see his mom again, and maybe the Wild Things will get their messes together and work things out on their own too. They seem at least a little closer to doing so at the end of the film than they did when we first encounter them.


4 Responses to ““You know, you’re the first king we haven’t eaten.””

  1. I like your review. It’s pretty much spot-on.

    The book didn’t scare me as a child either. I thought that some of the monsters were actually kind of cute and I think I thought that one of them looked like my dad (probably the red-bearded one, who was female in the film). Also, I noticed something weird that I haven’t seen people talk about: repeated “smothering” events that happen to Max. He looks really uncomfortable the first time that he and the wild things sleep in a pile, he gets trapped in the crushed fort and he hides out in one of the monsters’ stomachs. I thought it was odd.

    “Oh, it’s that dog. Don’t feed it, he’ll just follow you around.”

    • YES! The smothering! It reminded me of wrestling with my dad or little brother and the times when I would get squished and then not want to play anymore. Of course, Max wasn’t able to “not play” when the Wild Things were involved, but yeah. I totally forgot to mention that but I wanted to! I actually did mean to touch on that ’cause nobody else has in reviews.

      And I loved that dog. I kind of wanted to feed it, though.

  2. Nathan, this is a great review!

    We just finished watching the movie and I agree that this is not a children’s movie but a movie about childhood. I still remember buying you this book and how much you liked the Wild Things and wanted each one of them to roar or talk. As I was watching the movie I couldn’t help but think ‘I wonder if they sound like Nathan imagined they would?’


  3. Nathan, I am very impressed by your movie reviews of WTWTA & Caroline. Very good writing, you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what you want to say & how you want to say it. Good job, son!
    We watched WTWTA last night & two things struck me: 1) there is a place in all of us ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ that can be impulsive, self-centered & irresponsible & out of control. Obviously age-appropriate for a child – not so much for an adult. Which brought the 2nd train of thot: the movie could be a metaphor for addiction (or any other life-dominating area). We begin by entertaining unmet needs; initially we have some power & control over our ‘Wild Things’, then over time they can overpower us.
    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your thots!

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