Where the Wild Things Are

Posted on March 1, 2010 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language
Profanity: Brief mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Adults drink wine
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and violence, references to being eaten, bones of victims, hurt feelings and family stress
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 16, 2009
Date Released to DVD: March 2, 2010
Amazon.com ASIN: B001HN699A

Maurice Sendak’s spare, poetic, and deeply wise book has been lovingly unfolded into a movie about the child who lives in all of us, brave and fearful, generous and needy, angry and peaceful, confident and insecure, adventuresome and very glad to come home. The movie may challenge children who are used to bright, shiny colors and having everything explained to them but if they allow it, Max and his story will bloom inside them as it will for anyone open to its profound pleasures.

The book’s opening line is as well-remembered as “Call me Ishmael” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him ‘WILD THING.'” Those who wondered what prompted Max’s mischief will accompany him as he experiences the jubilation of creating his own cozy space, a snowball-stocked igloo, and as he joyously takes on his sister’s friends in a snowball fight, only to be inconsolably crushed when they carelessly smash his icy lair and then leave without him.

There has never been a more evocative portrayal on film of the purity, the intensity, the transcendence of childhood emotions. The hallmark of maturity is the way we temper our feelings; it is not a compliment when we call someone “childish” for not being able to do so. Our experiences — and our parents — teach us that life is complex, that sorrow and joy are always mixed, and that we can find the patience to respond to frustration without breaking anything. But one reason that we mis-remember childhood as idyllic is the longing for the ferocity of childhood pleasures. Jonze and his Max (Max Records) bring us straight into the immediacy and open-heartedness of a child’s emotions.

We know we are in a child’s world even before the movie begins, with scrawled-on opening credits and then a breathtaking, child’s eye opening bursting with sensation, all the feelings rushing together. The film brilliantly evokes the feeling of childhood with the same freshness and intimacy director Spike Jonze showed in the influential videos he made when he was barely out of his teens. Max’s mother is beautifully played by Catherine Keener who makes clear to us, if not to Max, her devotion and sensitivity in the midst of concerns about work and a budding romance. His incoherent fury at her being distracted, including a kiss from a date who seems to think he has the right to tell Max how to behave almost hurtles him from the house, into the night, where he runs and runs, and then to a boat, where he sails and sails, until he comes to the land of the Wild Things.

They begin to attack him, but Max tames them with his bravado and imagination and he becomes the king, promising to do away with loneliness and make everyone happy. The book’s brief story blooms here as Max interacts with the Wild Things (voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, and Chris Cooper). Each of them represents or reflects Max’s emotions or experiences. They love sleeping in a big pile and are thrilled with Max’s plans for a fort. But Max learns how difficult it is to be responsible for the happiness of others, and before long, like other children in stories who have traveled to lands filled with magic and wonder, he longs for home.

The movie’s look is steeped in the natural world, with forests and beaches, and intricate Waldorf-school-style constructions that evoke a sense of wonder. The screenplay by Dave Eggers and Jonze locates the heart of Sendak’s story. They have not turned it into a movie; they have made their own movie as a tribute to Sendak, to childhood, to parenthood, to the Wild Things we all are at times, and to the home that waits for us when those times are over.

Related Tags:


Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues Fantasy For the Whole Family Talking animals

12 Replies to “Where the Wild Things Are”

  1. Nell,
    I like the suggestion of Time Bandits if you liked Where the Wild Things Are. That was a great fantasy/adventure film similar to Wild Things.
    I’m with you on how great the film looked and the deeper meanings (with all the different emotions and lessons to learn). However, I felt the film was not marketed clearly. Young kids are going to be bored, not get the deeper messages, and may even be scared during some of the scenes. It never said specifically it was a “kids” movie, but I feel they did not give parents enough info and they may be under the impression that it is a kids film.
    Also, I thought the pace was incredibly slow. It was only like 95 minutes long, but it felt much longer and at times found it hard to keep the audience’s attention.
    So, I agree with you for the most part on this one, but Wild Things lost a few points in my book for not clearly defining its audience and for a pace that got boring at times. On the other hand, visually it was brilliant, and the messages were deep and meaningful!

  2. Nell – I grew up reading “Where The Wild Things Are” as a child and reading it to my children. Although I found it artistic, I found it to be one of the worst children’s movies I’ve ever seen. There is no reason on earth that so many social issues had to be created in this movie for children. If this movie is based upon a children’s picture book containing 9 sentences, then it MUST cater to elementary children. Period. It was very very slow and very disturbing at times. Nice of the teacher in the movie to tell the class that the sun will die, the solar system will be left in darkness, but hey, people will all be dead anyway. Great. He didn’t mention it would be billions of years from then. Max runs away from home and the police aren’t involved? Can’t the storyline of the bedroom becoming the island be enough for Spike Jonze? Real nice how DW “eats” Max to protect him and how one monster rips off another’s arm. I loved the music, the imagery, but hated the social storylines that took us away from a better story right in the book. A big BOO to this movie. Barely 2 stars out of 5.

  3. Thanks, Chris, for a great comment that underscores my point that this is a movie about childhood and not for children. While I am not recommending it for anyone under 8 or 9 and think it will be best appreciated by teenagers and adults, remember that we do show younger kids movies like “The Wizard of Oz,” which can be very scary. I felt that the scene with the teacher was, like the rest of the movie, from Max’s perspective, and he was getting a terrifying message from the teacher’s lecture that was a exaggerated and distorted version of what the teacher was saying. Billions of years does not mean anything to a child.
    I loved the way Jonze and Eggers (with the guidance of Sendak, who was very involved at every stage) had each of the wild things embody Max’s emotions, relationships, and experiences. It was disturbing because it made us feel Max’s frustration and fear, but it also made us feel his expanding understanding as he experienced for the first time what it is to be responsible for healing someone else’s sadness, jealousy, and isolation.
    As you can see on this site, I am recommending the Scholastic DVD version of this story for children. But for adults, I recommend this version.

  4. Does anyone know the line at the end of the movie that the bird says to max? It was a really sweet line to say goodbye and I wanted to cry, but can’t remember what it was.. Does anyone know?!?!?!

  5. Nell,
    Sendak says that what kids like is not what parents think they like. Fairy tales, traditionally, were very dark, and kids managed to deal with it. I agree that the film is probably (intentionally) mis-marketed, but that’s what film reviews are for!

  6. You are entirely right, Andy. I always keep in mind the barbarity of enduring fairy tales that have been told to centuries of children and the way that they help them work through conflicts and fears.

  7. My mother and I read this book to my son probably a hundred times when he was young so we went together to see this movie. I was amazed by the depth of understanding that this script shows. We both ended up crying. It totally tells the story of sensitive gifted boys–the ones that drive mothers to tears and that many teachers don’t understand. I will be asking all my arts education students to see it–realizing that many of them will relate to the depth of feelings that children experience but can’t verbalize with anything but a wolf howl when they are overwhelmed or hurting. But also to encourage my students that as teachers of the arts, they may make a difference for the Maxs of the world who need them to come along side and understand through creative expressions. Moms shouldn’t have to be the only ones to really understand the Maxes of this world. I teach a lot of Maxes and they are the most wonderful young men in the world–if we encourage them and don’t kill their imaginations.

  8. Professor Mom — your comment brought tears to my eyes. And your experience of the film so resonated with mine. I found it lyrical, beautifully structured, and Jungian in its depiction of all of the Wild Things as aspects of Max’s feelings and experience. The look in his eyes in the last scene showed that he began to appreciate for the first time what it means to be responsible for someone else. Thank you so much for your thoughts.

  9. One of the big differences in the movie from the book is that in the book Max’s mom is clearly in control. When Max get out of line, he is sent to his room. From this place of solitude Max goes on his journey of taming the wild things. Once he returns to his room, and those who love him the most, he finds his dinner. Clearly a message of forgiveness and unconditional love. In the movie Max Mother, although very loving, does not seem to be able to set limits for Max. Instead of Mom sending him to his room, Max runs away from his mom and when he returns is rewarded with cake. That is scary and why some never learn to tame their wild things.

  10. An interesting point, Grandmother, many thanks. For me, his mother set limits his wild thing could not accept, which is why he ran. When he returned, it was because he had tamed his wild thing and understood for the first time the burdens of caring for others.

  11. I found this movie to be the worst movie for children that I’ve ever seen. It shows how a selfish child learns absolutely nothing about how to solve any social issues. There is absolutely no learning of responsibility for his actions and decisions that he makes. He walks away from any problems that he encounters. I would not recommend this movie for any younger children.
    Most GOOD childrens’ movies have a moral and obstacle or some type of problem to overcome. This movie does neither.
    The only good thing about this movie is the graphics.

  12. Thank you, Dennis — I appreciate your comments. As I said in my review, this is not a movie for children. It is a movie for adults about childhood. But I disagree with your conclusion. I think Max learned a great deal and the scene at the very end, when he looks at his mother, shows that he has begun to understand for the first time what a complicated burden responsibility for others is. That understanding was the reason he had to leave the Wild Things go home and finish growing up — that lesson about what it means to be a grown-up is the first step for all of us.

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