Meet Max. He’s a 9-year-old explorer who torments the family dog, digs igloos, commands imaginary foot soldiers and enjoys a good snowball fight. But as inventive as his world is, it’s not perfect. Reality steps in to make sure of that.
His dad is rarely, if ever, part of the picture now. And when Max’s feelings are hurt by his dismissive older sister, Claire, and her rougher teenage friends, his loving-but-harried single mother can’t give her son the attention he craves—and needs.
The sensitive boy’s dark and difficult emotions eventually erupt. Unable to articulate his feelings, Max lashes out at his mother, biting her as she tries to restrain his tantrum. Then he races out of the house—wearing a wolf suit—and flees to a wooded lake. There his imagination fully takes over, sending him on a dangerous overseas journey to a mysterious island Where the Wild Things Are.
In this richly textured, psychologically complex place that loosely mirrors his own world, Max works through his real-life emotions and gradually develops empathy. After all, even brave explorers can feel misunderstood and lonely.
The faraway land is home to seven enormous, mythical and wild creatures: Carol, their short-tempered leader; Douglas, a levelheaded bird; Judith, a bossy, self-proclaimed "downer"; Ira, Judith’s laidback boyfriend; Alexander, a meek goat desperate for respect; the silent Bull; and KW, a sensitive female beast who is considering leaving this emotionally dysfunctional clan. And though they threaten to eat Max at first, his daring subdues the fearsome group. His sense of adventure and optimism even bring them together as a happy family again for a while.
So the Wild Things gladly put a crown on Max’s head and proclaim him king.
But the moody beasts also put their hope in Max’s ability to make them happy. As the boy’s "magic powers" are gradually seen to be false, the clan’s optimism sours. Group dynamics crumble under the weight of petty jealousies, insecurity, aggression and anger—not unlike how things in Max’s real world often seem to go.
Still, Max figures out how to tackle his feelings and show love to his newfound "family." And eventually he does the same in his real world, too.
Based on Maurice Sendak’s 1964 Caldecott Medal-winning book, Where the Wild Things Are, director Spike Jonze and screenwriter/novelist Dave Eggers flesh out the 10-sentence story in a visually beautiful, uniquely poignant and adventurous way.
Max’s mom is stressed and struggling to meet the demands of family and career, but she loves Max deeply and tries to do what’s best for him. In turn, Max loves his mom and, when his own emotions are in check, tries to comfort her. After trashing his sister’s room, Max shows remorse and helps his mother clean up his mess.
Max is a sensitive, imaginative and reflective little boy who wrestles with primal drives common to most males: aggression, the thirst for adventure, the longing to be known and loved, and the desire to be powerful, even willful. Gradually he comes to moderate these drives through dealing with the Wild Things’ parallel world.
The creatures themselves also come to grips with their emotions. They love Max deeply, though they also torment him at times. But like real families can, they grow to better understand and appreciate one another. We see the natural consequences of jealousies, unkind words, fits of rage and overly aggressive play.
Fort-building engenders a spirit of cooperation and lots of encouragement as the Wild Things and Max play and work together.
"[Sendak’s] book is like a poem," said Jonze in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, "It could mean different things to different people." I agree. And Jonze’s film is like that too. Its intricate exploration of the short story—and more important, human nature, frightening emotions and family dynamics—could be applied to any number of real-life questions and situations. The picture offers discussion material galore for parents who want a creative, entertaining way to talk about relationships, both good and bad, with their children.
Though nothing in the film is overtly spiritual, Carol’s longing for a perfect world in which "only the things you want to happen would happen" can be viewed as the universal longing for heaven. And in the creatures’ eyes, Max, their "king," could be—when the concept is stretched—seen as a longing for a fatherly God who will protect and nurture them.
Mom kisses her visiting boyfriend in the living room. Wild Things Judith and Ira live happily in an innocent and sweet (but temperamental) romantic relationship. Carol has strong romantic feelings for KW. Monster caricatures are posed in a snuggling and kissing position.
Max bites his mother’s shoulder as he struggles to get away from her grip during a disagreement. He also chases and wrestles aggressively with the family dog, seemingly biting its ear. When slighted by Claire, he takes revenge, going into her bedroom, making a mess and viciously destroying at least one of her possessions.
Max is tossed overboard during a violent storm at sea. And while not gratuitously violent, the Wild Things’ behavior and world can be aggressive. The bones of their prey, for example, sit ominously in a campfire—and Judith talks about eating Max’s bones. Emotionally distraught, Carol strikes out at Max, smashing a hole in a wall and later chasing and threatening to eat him when he realizes the boy can’t protect the group from loneliness and disappointment.
Even when Max and the creatures are at play, their roughhousing can become antagonistic and sometimes ends with physical injuries and hurt feelings. Boyish exclamations about cutting out people’s brains or exploding heads pop up in conversation. A raccoon is thrown during a game and later eaten by a beastie. A savage dirt clod fight leaves a creature emotionally and physically injured, and their wild rumpus through the forest destroys trees and dislodges boulders. Max and his new pals tumble from heights higher than most parents would want their sons venturing. And he also climbs a steep ocean cliff as he goes to the Wild Things’ village.
In what could be describe as petulant behavior, Carol destroys his comrades’ houses, crashing into them, throwing things and causing numerous explosion-like sounds and scenes. He also attacks Douglas, ripping off his arm in an aggressive but bloodless scene. (There’s an immediate joke and lightening of the mood.)
Crude or Profane Language
One or two uses each of "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑." God’s name is taken in vain three times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mom and her boyfriend drink wine.
Other Negative Elements
Max lies to the creatures about his kingly qualifications, saying he has magical powers and was once king of the Vikings. He’s also disrespectful to his mother, yelling, "Woman, feed me!" while standing on a kitchen counter. His behavior is so raw and hostile at times that some parents and children will certainly be startled by it.
In science class, a teacher claims that the sun is going to "die" one day—but that the human race will already have been wiped out by natural disasters and/or disease well before then. (A pretty scary "destiny" to contemplate for young hearts.)
Creatures mention picking noses and gnawing off feet. And in a gross-out moment, KW protects Max by hiding him in her stomach. (The lad emerges from her mouth slimy and wet.)
Parents can’t fix everything. And being in a family—even a loving one—can be really hard at times. Every child comes to these realizations at some point.
It’s a harsh discovery to recognize the parental embrace that once made you feel perfectly secure isn’t as all-powerful as you’d thought. Families will let you down. And the wild emotions of childhood—and adulthood, for that matter—can be frightening. People of all ages question their worth, abilities and feelings.
And when that happens, we all long for a place of peace and safety. As Douglas asks the newly crowned King Max, "Will you keep out all the sadness?" Of course, the answer for the Wild Things—and for all of us who look to others or situations to maintain our happiness—is no. No one can. At least, in this world.
But we are almost always capable of deciding not to let our anger or hurt separate us from our loved ones—just as Max ultimately does.
While Sendak’s Wild Things is one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, Wild Things the movie isn’t really for children. As Warner Bros. president Jeff Robinov states, "I would say it’s a movie for adults first and for a certain kind of child second. It doesn’t completely fit your expectation of a pure family film. It’s all good, but it is surprising." Spike Jonze adds, "To make a movie about what it feels like to be 9 years old—that was my simple intention."
In other words, he made a film about childhood that many adults will appreciate—and not all children should see. And that’s just fine with Sendak. He says he wanted Jonze to do something edgy and risky with his book. In a featurette on the Wild Things website, Jonze says that Sendak told him to "make [the story] your own. Make it personal. Make it dangerous."
As a result, wise parents will take the film’s PG rating seriously. As a fan of the fairly lighthearted book, I was not prepared for the emotional complexity of the movie. Its melancholic undertone surprised me—but I can’t say that it put me off, because in many ways, Wild Things portrays a fallen world that yearns for redemption, wrestling with longing while never really giving viewers an absolutely solid place to land emotionally or spiritually. In a strange but powerful way, this made me all the happier to know with certainty that this flawed existence we call life isn’t all there is.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Drama, Action/Adventure, Kids, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Max Records as Max; Catherine Keener as Mom; Mark Ruffalo as The Boyfriend; Voices of James Gandolfini as Carol; Paul Dano as Alexander; Catherine O’Hara as Judith; Forest Whitaker as Ira; Michael Berry Jr. as The Bull; Chris Cooper as Douglas; Lauren Ambrose as KW
Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich)
October 16, 2009
Meredith Whitmore Meredith Whitmore