Where the Wild Things Are

A small boy with a big imagination builds fortresses to play in, but his older sister only wants to play with her friends – larger, stronger boys who destroy his hard work without thinking; and though his mother takes pleasure from his inventiveness, the pressures of work and her own need for friendship prevent her from giving him the attention he demands. He reacts destructively, losing all control, and as his emotions run riot he flees his home and his family, washing up on the shores of a wooded island populated by…

…other wild things.

It was, I understand, a children’s book beloved by millions, but I wasn’t one of them – I haven’t read it. However, when I found Spike Jonze’s adaption of Maurice Sendak’s story was screening at my newly local cinema (I’ve just moved house and now it’s two minutes walk away) I had no doubts about what the first film I watched in 2010 would be. The only question would be whether I could convince my girlfriend to take me on January 1st or not. I could.

I find Jonze’s films hard watching. Not because they lack for quality by any means, but there is something about them which I find discomforting. Being John Malkovic and Adaptation both examined their characters like insects pinned under a magnifying glass, and part of me squirmed to escape from them in much the same way. Another part of me wouldn’t have it any other way; you can be certain of exposure to something challenging and original and, in a roundabout way, probably a bit horrible. Where the Wild Things Are also examines its protagonist’s psychology with a merciless eye, but this is a children’s story – apparently a far cry from Jonze’s normal output. What is the result?

Here too the boy encounters larger, stronger playmates, but their destructiveness and power are fantastically greater than that of the merely bigger boys – yet they are easily bent to his will and soon follow him as their unquestioned leader. He chooses which games to play and they obey. They hang on his every word, and they love him – but old conflicts still exist between the wild things, problems that lie beyond the reach of childish solutions.

In the best films “for children” there are different layers of appreciation; Pixar are often lauded for merging kiddie-level entertainment with depth and detail that speaks to those grownups accompanying them to the cinema (or, like me, who just like that sort of thing). I can’t speak for the original material in this case, but in Jonze’s interpretation the wild things embody simple, subtle parallels to the problems of the life which the protagonist Max is running from; parallels which, in some cases, might not be recognisable to a younger viewer but gave a impression of real emotional weight to me.

Behind the attractively guilt-free ruin the wild things casually mete out on their environment lurk quarrels and grievances. The couple, gentle Ira and negative Judith, seemed to represent passive and provocative aspects of Max’s relationship with his mother. The charismatic Carol nurses bruised feelings and is quick to lose his temper, mainly due to the frequent absences of KW, who has made her own friends outside of the group – the most clear parallel between the worlds of the story. Carol views this as a betrayal and Max immediately empathises with him, endeavouring to reunite the wild things, but the gradual perception of this favouritism by the others soon causes problems itself.

Under Max’s direction the group embark on a project, to build a huge fortress that will be a new home for them, and no-one else; but while Max succeeds in returning KW to them she brings her friends with her, bringing Carol’s feelings out into the open and causing greater rifts. Although all the wild things are large, one, the goaty Alexander, is noticeably smaller and weaker than the rest and is often picked on or ignored – when Max starts to follow suit, he is attacking an image of his own insecurities and weaknesses. Similarly, in his attempts to resolve the conflicts between Carol and KW, Max’s too obvious lack of experience shows through in a manner that made me urge greater maturity upon him; it also made me cringingly nostalgic for the kind of juvenile reasoning that I too once put into practice.

As the wild things become more and more true to their nature Max’s position as leader, and his safety, come under threat. In realising what it is the wild things lack – someone who can guide them with wisdom and caring – he understands what it is he needs as well… a parent. It is time to grow up. It is time to go home.

Max’s gradual recognition of the limitations of anger and his growing fear in the face of it may come late to the tale, but there are small signals much earlier pointing to the dangers of uncontrolled aggression, even when one is being playful. While Max’s most obvious connection is with the affectionate but frustrated Carol, it is his relationships with KW and his mother that provide the emotional foundation for his development as a character. There is real power in this story – and all this saying nothing of the near flawless creation of fantastic beasts and their fantasy world. Where the Wild Things Are is a bitter sweet experience, beautifully realised and deserving of recognition as considerably more than just a film for children.

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