The Wild Things of Childhood

Other — By on October 27, 2009 at 8:43 am

When asked what he would say to parents who criticized his book Where the Wild Things Are for being too scary, author Maurice Sendak responded that he would “tell them to go to hell.” It is certainly an ironic statement, considering that certain scenes from Sendak’s book, and certainly several images from Jonze’s recent film adaptation, spark images of distinctly hellish dreamscapes. The scene in Jonze’s film introducing the Wild Things as they destroy their huts around a blazing fire is particularly evocative.

But this is precisely the feeling that Jonze—via Sendak—wanted to evoke. Earlier in the same interview by Newsweek, Sendak remarked that, “we are squeamish. We are Disneyfied. We don’t want children to suffer. But what do we do about the fact that they do? The trick is to turn that into art.” Jonze likewise stated, as he described his process of conceiving the film that the writing became easy when he realized the story was about “wild emotions.” In another interview, he expanded on this saying that, “as a kid, for me at least, wild emotions were probably the things that were the scariest.”

And that is precisely what Jonze’s film is about; it might as well be titled Where the Wild Emotions Are. When we are introduced to Max, his display of emotional range in the first ten minutes alone is staggering. When friends of his older sister destroy his igloo, Max transforms from joy to despair in a matter of seconds. Jonze expands on Sendak’s world by giving Max divorced parents to explain his fierce anger. Seeing his mother kissing her boyfriend sends Max into his largest tantrum, causing him to run away from home to the Island of the Wild Things.

Nothing about Max’s journey is tame. His boat trip to the island takes him through a treacherous storm with a dangerous landing on the rocky shore. The Wild Thing’s first thought when meeting Max is to eat him up. Even after Max “tames” them, that threat never entirely goes away. All of this is very true to Sendak’s book, but where it begins to stray is after their wild rumpus, when Max discovers that the Wild Things have emotional problems and inter-personal conflicts of their own, yet none possess an emotional depth deeper then Max’s—because of course, they are simply extensions of Max’s subconscious.

So when they ask Max if he will make things better, it becomes clear that Max is asking himself the question. Can he make his own world better? Can he tame his own wild emotions?

The emotional arcs of the characters drive the film rather than the plot, something almost never done in children’s film. I suspect this is the actual culprit behind the allegations that Jonze’s’ film is only for adults, as if children cannot be engaged by emotional complexity. I’ll admit that they film may be to slow for the attention span of most children’s, but foreign to a child’s psyche it is not. Or do we forget how much of playtime was comprised of endless rule making, and how deep the emotions ran when the rules were broken? If children love Jonze’s remake, they will love it for the same reasons earlier generations loved Sendak’s book, not because it is entertaining but because it is familiar.

by brian j walton



  • Dante

    My brother and I invented a baseballesque game growing up called Loftball. The rules evolved every game and became so complete and extensive that it became entirely impossible to explain the functionality of the game to anyone. Yet I loved this game with all my heart. And when my brother grew up and said he didn’t want to play it anymore, my heart hardened if only just a little.

  • http://www.christiansincontext.org Andrew Faris

    Good stuff Brian- thanks! I haven’t seen it yet but this really makes me want to.

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Lindsay Stallones

    Great review, Brian. I completely agree – which is why while I loved this film, I didn’t enjoy it. It successfully evoked all those powerful, consuming emotions that made me feel so helpless as a kid. The scenes in the house at night are particularly melancholic, and my brother the cinephile and I spent a long time talking about how odd it was that it evoked exactly the same memories in both of us, despite our age difference.

    It’s rare that a film can so accurately and powerfully recreate forgotten emotions, and it’s even rarer for a popular film to attempt it. Quite beautiful.

  • http://barrywallace.wordpress.com Barry Wallace

    Very good review. I enjoyed the film, and so did my 9 year old son. Before we went, I collected links to several other good reviews and posted them on my blog. Wish I had known about this one then! Thanks.