You have to wonder how Spike Jonze pitched Where the Wild Things Are to the studio. I like to imagine that he was totally forthright: “It’s a raw explication of one boy’s anger and confusion over an adult world which seems fundamentally alien, with the boy’s various vulnerabilities enacted by enormous satyr-esque monsters in stark jungle and desert landscapes. The monsters are voiced by folks like James Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose. We’ve got Dave Eggers on script duty and we don’t want to use much CG. Also, we’re going to deviate significantly from the nine sentences of source material.” Probably the executives’ first question was the same one I’ve heard again and again over the course of the last month: is this a children’s movie at all?
Well, yes, but it’s a children’s movie in the age of Up, which means it’s more dense, mature, and emotionally textured than the majority of this year’s films rated PG-13 or higher. I think most kids will like Where the Wild Things Are just fine, but despite—or rather, because of—its thoughtful unsentimentality, it’s not the sort of kids’ movie many adults want to see. It deals earnestly with combustible, uncomfortable emotions, and it’s not based on a line of toys from the eighties. This is a film interested in words unsaid and misunderstood, not catchphrases or characters who look good on a backpack. As with Up, kids won’t understand everything that happens onscreen. Some will be bored (just as some adults will be bored). But Jonze and Eggers go to pains to tell a story from the perspective of a child, to identify with kids rather than simply market to them, and viewers of all ages will appreciate that.
Max Record plays our confused hero, who is also named Max. Record is an extraordinarily talented child actor, and his performance—spanning a broader range of emotions than many adult actors ever handle—is the backbone of the film. Max is a moshpit of feeling, careening in a matter of seconds from joy (when he manages to provoke his distant teen sister and her friends into a snowball fight) to impotent sobs (when the bigger kids cruelly and quickly win). His world is changing so quickly that he can’t quite work out the emotional grammars that grown-ups expect from him, and after a series of confusing household disappointments, Max finally bites his mother and runs howling into the streets. At the edge of town, he finds an empty ship, which he sails to a vast, amorphous island of deserts and wild jungles.
The “real world” first act of the film is shot pretty naturalistically—the camera stays close to Max, weaves through his play, shakes when he shakes—but once he reaches the island, it’s all out cinematographic chaos. The forest is full of fires, always at the edge of vision, and the camera jerks every which way as Max tracks a series of howls and crashes into a clearing full of enormous, vaguely satanic monsters. One of these monsters, named Carol, spins furiously through the clearing, knocking down trees and makeshift huts while the other creatures look on in meek terror. Max feels an immediate kinship with Carol, and proceeds to assist the monster in his destruction, but that very assistance calms the beast. Once calm, Carol and the rest of the Wild Things are hilariously fussy and mild—after Max boasts of his legendary ferocity and supernatural powers (including the ability to obliterate sadness) they hold an impromptu vote and declare the boy their king. It quickly becomes clear that the monsters expect quite a lot of their elected official: they really, really want him to obliterate sadness. Carol wants Max to bring a wayward Wild Thing, K.W., back into the fold—lately she’s been spending all her time with a set of mysterious other friends—and the rest of the monsters want a return to the old days when they all slept together in a pile.
Some critics have complained that the Wild Things are too middle-aged in their mannerisms and anxieties, but that criticism misses the point by millimeters: the monsters speak and act and argue like Max’s perception of the adults (and older kids) in his life, all while voicing variations on his own thoughts and fears. There’s a lot of strong, subtle writing here, but it’s the sheer complexity of the Wild Things as id-ridden metaphors that makes the story shine. The monsters defy easy reduction; they’re not simply adults or children or childish wildness, but all of those. Nor are they toothless—on more than one occasion, they seriously consider eating Max, and early in his time on the island, Max sees the bones of their former child-kings. He’s cavorting with and confronting the kind of id that consumes.
Max leads the monsters on a “wild rumpus,” oversees their construction of a massive globe-like fort, and even succeeds in coaxing everyone to sleep in a big pile, but of course he lacks magical powers, and can’t quite obliterate sadness. His negotiation with this impotence is the fulcrum of the entire story, and Jonze and Eggers navigate the fulcrum subtly. Max does evolve, and figures out some of those grown-up emotional grammars, but there’s no bald, awkward “I learned something today” moment. The evolution feels natural, familiar—that slow coming-to-terms-with-oneself that everyone has experienced—and as Max grows, the camera begins to steady and draw away from him, presenting him as a functional part of his world.
The most damning thing you could say about Where the Wild Things Are is that it’s not particularly fun. It’s not ponderous, either, and there are plenty of fun or funny moments, but overall it’s a serious film that’s both for and about kids. That makes it a rarity, something we’re not quite accustomed to, and it’s easy to understand some would-be viewers’ reluctance. If you’re out for a lighthearted family afternoon at the movies, this probably isn’t the film for you. Honestly, it seems more like something to show the kids on a rainy day, when moods skew toward the sour and claustrophobic. Where the Wild Things Are is about understanding your vulnerabilities and the vulnerabilities of others, about learning to navigate complex emotional worlds. It may not offer much in the way of escapist fun (Max’s escape is inward, to a more dangerous place), but it’s thoughtful and ultimately affirmative, built with grace and great empathy.