Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Rated PG. Our ratings: V-3 ; L- ; S/N Running time: 1 hour 41 min.

But wild animals will lie down there,
and its houses will be full of howling creatures;
there ostriches will live,
and there goat-demons will dance.
Hyenas will cry in its towers,
and jackals in the pleasant palaces
Isaiah 13:21-22a

At first young Max revels in the freedom of the island where the wild things are.

Warner Bros. Pictures

The above passage by the ancient prophet is a description of the fate of Babylon, the enemy that threatens the destruction of Israel.

Meant as a sobering warning, the wild scene is one in which Max, the 9 year-old hero of Spike Jonze’s new movie, would have felt right at home. In author Maurice Sendak’s ultra-short story Max is described as a holy terror, creating chaos wherever he goes. In the film version we are shown in more detail the back story leading up to the confrontation between Max (Max Records) and his divorced mom (Catherine Keener).

Max builds an igloo or snow fort in the snow, but his sister, absorbed like most teenagers in her own affairs, refuses to come out and admire his handiwork. He gleefully engages in a snowball fight with several teenagers, but when one of them jumps atop his igloo and smashes it down upon him, the little boy bursts into tears. Also adding to his inner turmoil is his jealousy over his mom’s attention to her new boyfriend and his learning at his school science class that the sun one day will die, causing the end of life on earth. Thus when Max, clad in his wolf suit, runs around the house yelling and then jumps atop the dining room table and his mother orders him to get down, the disturbed boy refuses. During their screaming encounter he hurls the verbal the barb intended to wound the restraining parent that has been uttered at one time or another by virtually every child who has lived, “I hate you!” Max runs outside and into the woods, arriving at a small sail boat tied up at a dock. He sets off, sailing into a storm and barely keeps afloat. Eventually the storm subsides and he spies an island far off. Night is falling, and he can see fires up the hillside. Landing, he manages to climb the steep cliff and approach the fire. A group of large, strange animals are trying to stop one of their number from smashing some spherical huts made out of interwoven sticks. When they discover Max, the boy prevents them from eating him by asserting that he has special powers and that he is a king in the land from which he comes. The awed creatures believe him, and introduce him to some of their fellow beasts.

There follows a series of episodes only hinted at in the book, the central portion of the story being told there only through Mr. Sendack’s marvelous illustrations. A good decision of the director’s was to forego animation and use live actors encased in costumes and masks created by Jim Henson Company’s Creature Shop. This adds to the realism in dealing with a child’s emotions and fears, making this a film that I expect psychologists will both enjoy and use in their work with children and parents.

Although this central portion of the film is rather plotless and thus probably too long, the film is by no means the bloated affair that I had feared it would be.(My memories of the terrible adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas still make me shudder, with the original story’s sharp attack on society’s commercialism being almost overwhelmed by so much additional material.) Parents will want to check out the film before taking a preschooler to it because of a few scary scenes, but for most families, this will become a film to cherish along with the book.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. How is Max typical of a young child, especially of a boy? How does his patient mother apparently try to move beyond the old Biblical injunction of “spare the rod, spoil the child” ?

2. What do you think of changing some of the book’s elements, such as having Max run out of the house rather than being sent up to his room without his supper? How is this a play on the old theme of running away from home?

3. How often have you heard children say to someone that angers them, “I hate you” ? Recall any time when you said that as a child? And yet what happened shortly after such encounters—you were back playing with the person, or hugging again the parent who had angered you?

4. What do you think of Max’s friends? Which appealed to, and which repulsed you (if any)? What do you think of the director’s statement (made in interviews) that he sees the fearsome creatures as embodiments of Max’s unruly emotions and feelings? How is Mother’s statement that Max is “out of control” right on target? How is maturity a matter of gaining control of one’s emotions/passions? (And yet which also can go too far if it leads to uptight adults such as the disciples, to whom Jesus said they must become “like a child.” )

5. How is Max’s assertion that he has special powers and that he is a king typical of the thought process of a child? Who is at the center of a child’s world? How is growing up or maturing a matter of being able to place someone (or some principle) at the center of one’s life rather than oneself?

6. What do you think of the film version of the book’s ending? How does Catherine Keener’s facial expression show love and grace as she watches her son?