Where the Wild Things Are: Put Off All Your Beast

October 9, 2009
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Review by Christopher Perrin

  • “Inside all of us is a Wild Thing,” goes the tagline to Spike Jonze’s 2009 film Where the Wild Things Are, based on the popular children’s book by Maurice Sendak and Max is the wildest of the wild, son and younger brother in a broken family. Jonze with co-adapter Dave Eggers craft a touching film with dark and unresolved undertones. Early in the movie we see him in school where a teacher tells the class about the sun.

    “And the sun is the center of our solar system. It's the reason that all the planets are here. It, uh, it's warmth gives the sunlight, makes our planet livable. And of course the sun won't always be here to keep us warm. It, uh, like all things will die... And when it does, first it expands. Enveloping all the surrounding planets, including earth before consuming rapidly. The sun, after all, is just fuel burning ferociously... when it runs of fuel... well... it'll be gone. Well, after that the solar system will go dark, permanently. I'm sure by that time, the...human race will have fallen to any numbers of calamities... war, pollution, global warming, tsunamis earthquakes, meteors...Hey, who knows, right?”

    An inauspicious beginning to what is presumably a children’s film. Clearly Max is riddled with anxieties, friendless and feeling ignored and now subject to calamities. After school he builds a rocketship to escape a flow of lava, calling for his mother to join him. When she fails to respond he dons his wolf suit and disrupts dinner and his mother’s date. “I’ll eat you up!” he roars and bites her. His mother tells him he’s out of control and he runs away, deep into the woods at night, finds a boat and crosses the ocean, finding the island of Wild Things.

    The Wild Things are beastly 6 to 8 foot tall childlike monsters. Carol, KW, Douglas, Ira, Judith, Alexander and the Bull are in a similar state as Max, depressed, broken apart, motherless, kingless and rapidly on their way to homelessness as Carol is destroying their wicker abode. Max is appointed king after a few deft fictions about his power. Carol draws out a crown from the bones of the previous kings and places it on Max’s head. His job as king is to keep out the loneliness and sadness. Then they rumpus, piling themselves atop each other in furry embrace. At first this new life seems great, but the problems of old begin to creep in, KW doesn’t want to stay in the group, selfishness and envy threaten to split them further, and again the world is dying. Carol shows him the desert and says, “Well, look. This used to be all rock, and now it’s sand. And then one day it’s gonna be dust. And then the whole island will be dust. And then... I don’t even know what comes after dust.” and then Max tells him that the sun is going to consume everything someday.

    The island of Wild Things reflects Max’s life, all his fears and hopes, and the Wild Things, particularly Carol, are his mirrors. When Carol feels betrayed he destroys the miniature world he made, just as Max destroyed his sister’s room at her betrayal. Carol is desperate for the attention of KW who seems coolly detached from the rest of them and more intent on talking to the birds Bob and Terry, whose mumbled twitter is reminiscent of the buzzing of the phone Max’s mom is always on. In the end things fall apart and Max must run for his life when Carol seeks to eat him for as Judith said at the beginning, “if you’ve got a problem, eat it.”

    This method of resolution via consumption has been hinted at from the very beginning when Max is told that the sun will consume the earth, or in the story Max tells his mother about the vampire who tries to eat a building, but can’t because his teeth fall out. Eating/destruction seems to be the only known method for problem solving, but they hope for a better way as KW says to Max: “It’ll be good to have someone around who doesn’t eat everybody. I mean, you just bite everyone. Biters aren’t so bad, eaters are the one’s I just can’t stand.”

    St. Paul’s warning in Galatians seems pertinent, that those who bite and devour must beware lest they be consumed. This is ironically upended at the end. In flight from Carol, Max hides in the belly of KW, sliding there like a savory morsel. It is there, enwombed, that he realizes the difficulty of being the king. Drawn from her gullet he says, “I wish you guys had a mom.” In the end, loving and hating have the same response, that of eating. Lest you eat my flesh, says the Nazarene, you have no life in you. Before Max departs KW says, “I’ll eat you up, I love you so.”

    This is reminiscent of a story the late Sendak told:

    “Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

    Describing the plight of the Wild Things Carol says: "Do you know what it feels like when all your teeth are falling out really slowly and you don’t even notice and one day you realize they’re all separated really far apart and then you don’t have any teeth anymore?" reminding us of Max's story at the beginning of the toothless vampire that went away crying because he couldn't be a vampire anymore. We are told that we all have a Wild Thing inside of us, an immature uncontrollable instinct that can't help but drive off friends and ruin worlds; and Spike Jonze seems to genuinely believe this is a sad but inevitable truth. That it is a good thing that we outgrow beasthood and vampirism isn't even recognized as an option.

    Sailing from the Wild Things, Max recognizes the rowdy emotions of childhood and though he hasn’t yet learned to restrain them he has recognized the rightful authority. He returns home and his mother embraces him. She brushes back the hood of his costume and feeds him, as if to put off his beast. Though the movie is about wild animals and eating, not one bite of food is consumed until the end of the film. The reason Max gives the Wild Things for leaving his former home is that he didn’t like frozen corn, equating the Love with Food. Though many problems remain the movie concludes with his mother lovingly feeding him chocolate cake. Sadly, there is no resolution to the lack of King, nor to sun dying. The world will die, going from rock to sand to dust, but it does not know what comes after dust. The movie does not know that there is a King who can call out life from dust.

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  • Release Date
    October 9, 2009
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