Review: Where the Wild Things Are

This movie, like the book that inspired it, is written in the language of children. I had a little trouble immersing myself in it and was really only able to grasp how it made me feel hours later. Being grown and accustomed to stories with a different structure–more complex, perhaps, but also with more obvious fundamental truths–I was at first put off by the seeming lack of foundation. After some time to think it over, though, I would have to say this is a good film for parents to watch with their children, if not something that’s going to entertain adults.

The film tells the story of a boy learning that his way isn’t necessarily the best way and that sometimes it’s hard to understand or do anything about other people’s pain. It’s a story of growing up. But more than that, it’s a story of finding and nurturing happiness through caring about others.

These conclusions aren’t immediately obvious. There’s no narrator, and no character steps up and says “treating people badly is wrong, and here’s why”. Instead, we see the moral obliquely, through the characters’ actions and their consequences.

When Max’s sister’s friends destroy his igloo, he’s hurt and angry. The boys have crossed a line–a line that is only visible to Max. To Max, retaliating to snowballs with snowballs was perfectly acceptable, but he doesn’t comprehend why they’d chase him back to his igloo and then break it in to get to him. The audience can see that the boys think it’s all in good fun, but Max interprets their actions as maliciousness, and his sister’s lack of understanding as abandonment.

Later, Max urges Douglas to throw dirt clods at Alexander. Alexander protests, but Max pays this no mind and has Douglas throw more dirt. It’s only when Alexander becomes extremely upset that Max realizes anything’s wrong. He comes full circle in this scene–now he’s the boys, and it’s all in good fun, except someone inadvertently got hurt. And like the boys, he doesn’t know what to do until much later, when he finally apologizes.

Having seen hurt from both perspectives, Max realizes it’s not as simple as he thought it was. It’s not that people choose not to do things Max’s way because they don’t like him. It’s that everyone has their own wants and needs and feelings that are different from Max’s.

The Max/Carol relationship is very important. Carol is Max’s analogue in the Wild Things family–he’s the one who feels lonely and scared and fights those feelings by acting out.

Max feels lost and alone at the beginning of the film. His dad’s gone, his mother’s busy, and his sister is going through her own kind of growing up. When his mom splits her attention even more, inviting a man over, Max feels abandoned. This is similar to how Carol feels about KW running off to hang out with Bob and Terry. Max feels that his mother should focus her attention on him. Likewise, Carol wants all of KW’s attention.

To try and get that prized attention, Max acts out in the kitchen. His mother doesn’t react the way he wants her to so he fights her. It ends with Max biting his mother, and his mother screaming “What’s wrong with you?” It’s a total rejection, one that sends Max running out the door and down the street and through the fence and onto the boat.

Later, Max sees similar behavior in Carol, behavior he can’t understand or control. He’s afraid…and that fear causes him to withdraw from Carol. At that point he begins to understand his mother.

While these are the two examples of role-reversal that stuck out to me the most, the film is rich with them. The structure is therefore quite simple: introduce a perspective, then answer it with an opposing one. But the conclusions are never expressed. Max leaves the island without teaching the Wild Things anything more than basic love. And we don’t see Max and his mother talking about what happened; all we see are looks passed between them and a strong embrace. We are left to find the lessons Max learned on our own. The closest we get is Max’s comment to the Wild Things, “I wish you guys had a mother.”

Because the moral of the story isn’t obvious, I imagine many parents’ gut reaction will be to not show this movie to their children. If you ignore the reversals that teach Max to see more than one side of a problem, you’re left simply with a string of wild and violent behavior, many times frightening, overlaid with the grim prophecy of Max’s teacher about the death of the sun and the human race. It’s a dark picture that parents might feel they want to protect their children from.

But the movie is highly teachable. It’s certainly not a film to let children watch by themselves, and it absolutely must be discussed afterwards. But the structure of the film allows for some very good instruction on the nature of human relationships, what it’s like to make tough decisions, and how to find happiness in an uncertain world.

I would suggest parents ask their kids questions about Max’s feelings and motivations at different times in the movie. “How did Max feel when the boys smashed his igloo? Why did he act out in the kitchen? Why did Max run away? Why did he decide to go home?” Through discussion, parents can help their children reach the conclusions Max did.

5 replies on “Review: Where the Wild Things Are”

Well, I liked the book a lot when I was a kid, but since I have no kids, I guess I'll pass on the movie until it premieres on HBO or something.

One thing I thought was odd that I didn't mention in my review was that Max doesn't go to bed before running off to where the Wild Things are. In the book I always felt that those events could be interpreted as a dream, but in the movie he runs away right after the fight with his mom. So unless he fell asleep outside and off-screen somewhere, it seems the film wants us to believe the Wild Things actually exist.

Chuck: Yeah, I'm not sure I can recommend this movie for adults who don't have or work with children. I think it offers great insight into how children think, but it does not provide any happy nostalgia. It presents the scary side of being a kid, of that first realization that your parents don't know everything and the world is bigger and stranger than you thought.

Thanks for the skinny, Heather. I think I'm with Chuck here, too. I'll wait for the DVD.

You never know quite what you're going to get with Spike Jonze films!

I haven't seen it yet, but I love your review. I have no real basis to answer, but as a parent a couple things struck me. Lol

First, my daughter & I have been talking about how being a kid really does "suck" sometimes & it is very scary. If this movie helps to validate those feelings for kids who are told they are "full of it" (as in, you have it so easy being a kid!) then that's a plus. Once their feelings are validated, I think kids (and even adults) are more open to alternative points of view.

Second, I really don't think kids learn as well when the messages are "up front" or "in your face". It's an automatic turn off and sooooo much easier to ignore. If this movie grabs kids at all (even if it's the common ground of being picked on/revenge) maybe the underlying messages will sink in better. One of the best ways I’ve found to teach my girl is indirectly. (No, not all the time!) When she comes to a conclusion on her own (without noticing my ‘help’), it’s like she’s been set in concrete.

I can’t wait to see the movie so I know what we’re discussing! Lol

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