How Where the Wild Things Are Honors the Anxieties of Childhood

Movies Features Spike Jonze
How Where the Wild Things Are Honors the Anxieties of Childhood

Being a kid is kind of like living at a party you did not ask to be invited to. While at the party you are learning what a party is—what the verbal patterns and social rhythms are. And to navigate the party you must lean upon the wisdom of people who arrived before you, because they usually now know which cupboards the drinking glasses are in and how to dance and how to express the thoughts that live in their minds. And because you are the nascent living thing in the room, you are still learning. Spike Jonze’s 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book Where the Wild Things Are masterfully encapsulates this combination of discomfort and wondrous discovery that courses through the beginning of this proverbial party that is childhood. It is a film that does not pander to children, but rather has compassion for the fact that kids have not consented to being alive and are trying to understand what it means to be a fully actualized person.

Max (Max Records), a young boy who yearns to connect to his mother Connie (Catherine Keener) and sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs), has a depth of emotion—volcanic anger, intermittent confusion and specks of shame—but none of the language to communicate any of it. This results in him lashing out at home, stomping about in his eggshell-colored animal suit and destroying things around the house. One night, after biting his mother and being sent to bed without dinner, Max runs away from home and finds himself sailing away to an island where he befriends the wild things: Carol (James Gandolfini), Douglas (Chris Cooper), Judith (Catherine O’Hara), KW (Lauren Ambrose), Ira (Forest Whitaker), Alexander (Paul Dano) and The Bull (Michael Berry Jr.).

When Max first lands on the shores, the wild things threaten to gnash their terrible teeth and eat him. But after Max performs his magic trick (dancing), the wild things reevaluate and make Max their king. In return, Max promises to unite all of the wild things. He assures them that their shared place will be the kind of place where there isn’t any sadness and where “only the things you want to have happen will happen.” What Max essentially promises himself and his new chosen family is that he can manifest the reliable sense of belonging, safety and understanding he yearned for in the home he fled. But of course Max is unable to conjure this utopia and to extract every hurt from the place of the wild things. He is unable here, just as he was at home, to disappear the emotional discomforts that inevitably accompany being alive.

The beauty of Jonze’s film partially comes from the strength of Sendak’s original story. There is a reason that Where the Wild Things Are has spurred various adaptations and recorded readings (by incredible Christopher Walken impersonators and more) since its original release. But beyond the hallowed legacy of the story, the transcendent element of Jonze’s 2009 film stems from the dignity Max is granted and the space he is given to emote his frustrations and have those feelings honored. As the beloved Arcade Fire-scored trailer says, “Inside all of us is a wild thing.” Jonze’s and Dave Eggers’ script centralizes childhood vulnerability and anxiety to ultimately explore the worthiness of all children to be accepted and known.

In Where the Wild Things Are’s first act, Max builds an igloo alone on a snowy day and watches his teenage sister play with her friends. Max gazes at the group. He hungers for an invitation to participate with them and even invites his sister to witness his “masterpiece.” All to no avail. For a moment that craving for intimacy seems within his grasp when Claire’s friends have a spontaneous snowball fight with Max from the other side of a fence. As snow is hurled over the divide, Claire and her friends more literally breach the fence, running towards a laughing, joyous Max who retreats back to his igloo. But when an older boy stomps all over that igloo—Max’s makeshift, lonesome home—Max cries angrily, retreats to Claire’s room and destroys a heart-shaped ornament he made for her. An eye for an eye, a space for a space. After his anger has subsided, Max looks at the snow melt on the carpet and the trinket he has destroyed, and is ashamed of himself. He only wanted to participate, after all.

Where other films would focus on Max’s subsequent comeuppance, how very bad his act of retaliation was, Where the Wild Things Are gives us time to linger at Max’s side—to see the progression of his emotion. We aren’t encouraged to judge him for the crescendo or the come down. Rather we are given time to witness him reeling, to see what happens when his request for earnest company and attention goes unmet.

In contrast to Max, precocious storybook children like Charlie Bucket or E.T’s selfless Elliot Thompson (Henry Thomas) are often beloved because they are not considered “problem children.” Rather than causing havoc, making messes and reacting to his circumstances in loud ways that are inconvenient to the adults in his life, Charlie is obedient, polite. Good. Elliot is rendered admirable because his capacity for care triumphs over the conquest of the American government and helps an alien return home. Elliot and Charlie show up in mature, tempered ways and wield their wit to defy challenging forces that threaten the ones they love. An implicitly dangerous suggestion then is delivered through these characters, one which asserts that it is the quiet resourcefulness of children in traumatic situations, rather than their existence alone, that makes them eligible for compassion and attention.

Max is not a mature, tempered child. He expresses his inner turmoil through his unhinged, destructive behaviors. Jonze could have cartoonishly reduced Max’s anger to the taxing inconvenience that it surely was for the people around him, overlaying that snowball scene with the titularly appropriate “Wild Thing” by The Troggs, for example. Instead, the film legitimizes Max’s anxiety as Karen O’s soft, then tumultuous “Igloo” effectively scores the scene. The music’s soothing coos nearly lull lonely Max, but later mount to match his anger in Claire’s room. In addition to the lingering camera, the musicality of the scene reflects Max’s feelings. In the stead of Claire and Connie, who repeatedly shrug Max off or passively ignore him, the narrative’s proximity to Max’s experience leads the audience to stand in as a surrogate loved one—the friend Max desires to accept and notice him. This further reinforces Jonze and Sendak’s thematic meditations on the isolation children experience as they come to know their inner worlds, but it also helps ground Max’s affinity with the wild things.

Carol and the other wild things Max befriends share Max’s aggressive streak. Gandolfini in particular imbues Carol with a gentle giantness: He has this great gruff voice and generally chipper disposition but, like Max, Carol is prone to mood swings, anger and a growing sense of estrangement from the wild things due to his unpredictable behaviors. When Max is in the company of Carol, he experiences a sense of kinship because Carol and the other creatures share Max’s impulse to smash trees, build forts, roar and play. Max’s home behaviors are not wholly inappropriate or inconvenient when he is with the wild things. Here Max is witnessed and known. But it is also here that Max learns that being witnessed and known assuages but does not vanquish the hurt of being alive. The wild things are able to empathize with Max but they are also extensions of Max’s psyche and therefore not able to solve his interior problems, only mirror them.

When Max is outed for not being a true king and for not being able to take away everyone’s sadness as he promised, he chooses to return home. This culminates in an emotional scene in which Carol, whom Max has yet to reconcile with, wails on the shore while Max’s boat sails home. One by one, the wild things solemnly approach Max, expressing their goodbyes. The Bull does not speak throughout the film, until this final moment of departure when he asks Max if he “will say good things” about the wild things when he gets home. When Max assures that he will, The Bull says, “Thanks Max.” The steady camera follows Max and KW as the former says goodbye to Judith and Ira. Judith, in her sharp way, shares that Max is the first king they haven’t eaten. It is her “I love you.” A suddenly shaky camera cuts to Carol, racing through the island dunes, desperately trying to reach Max at the shore. Max peeks over at the dunes for Carol, as KW helps Max into his boat and shares Sendak’s famous lines: “Please don’t go, I’ll eat you up, I love you so.”

As Max begins to sail away, Carol finally arrives. It is too late. He knows and Max knows, and there is nothing to be said—so Carol begins to howl. Max howls back and disappears over the horizon. Max’s choice to return home is a signal of his growth. It’s evidence that he has begun to understand that temporary escape and promises of community can be a healing balm but not a permanent solution to home issues. Max’s actions communicate his early understanding that childhood is not special because if done right it can be devoid of pain, but because it is the time in life when we begin to understand how to process, monitor and manage the way we engage with pain and, in response, how we treat others.

In Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are the audience is given time to witness Max’s recognition that he—like the wild things, his mother and sister—is imperfect. Connie and Claire do not try to ignore him. Like Max, they intermittently fall short of offering and receiving care in the ways they should. As Max returns home, a remorseful and relieved Connie offers her son dinner and sits at the dining table while he eats. This is the final message of Jonze’s film: Childhood is the time when people begin learning the rhythms of life and the depths of human emotion, but that relationship to knowing grows over a lifetime. It lasts the full duration of the party. And hopefully when we, like Max, return to the places and the parts of ourselves we’ve fled from, people will be there waiting to offer us food. And the food will still be hot.

Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.

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