Children and other wild things


Where the Wild Things Are (PG). Running time: 101 minutes. Director: Spike Jonze. Starring: Max Records, Katherine Keener, James Gandolfini

Where the Wild Things AreIf the children don't grow up
Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up
We're just a million little gods causing rainstorms, turning every good thing to rust
I guess we'll just have to adjust.

Growing up can be hard. In these lines from their song 'Wake Up', Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire seem to envision the move from innocence to experience as the process of being wrenched from the gleeful terror of childhood. The grower, in the process of growing, both experiences and causes pain. Finally, he 'adjusts' to the responsibilities of adulthood. Here, adjustment could easily be taken to mean resignation.

The song is featured in the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are, and provides a useful lens. The film is inspired by an unconventional children's picture book, and is itself an unconventional children's film. It reflects the idea that while in many ways, childhood is a terrifying place to be, it is not as terrifying as what comes next.

There are monsters in Where the Wild Things Are — hulking, toothsome, hairy beasts that belong to a fantasy realm. But 'wild things' also exist within the film's portrayal of ordinary reality. During the opening scene, a boy dressed in a matted wolf costume chases and wrestles his pet dog on the floor of his living room. The vigour of his attack and his animalistic snarling is genuinely unsettling.

The boy, Max (Records), we learn, is a charismatic and troubled child. He is animated by a strong and erratic imagination, and prone to extremes of emotion. During a single sequence we see him move from the joy of a childhood game, to sorrow when the game goes wrong, to rage as he takes revenge, to remorse for his actions. There are hints of a mental illness, but, really, Max is simply Every Child, in exaggerated form.

Max is isolated. His beloved older sister Clair (Emmerichs) is disappearing into the self-centredness of adolescence. His mother (Keener) is both nurturing and somehow distant. She looks upon Max as if he is alien: with love, wonder, bewilderment and fear.

A sudden, ferocious conflict between mother and son causes Max to flee from his home, and into a fantasy world. He boards a tiny sailboat and crosses the troubled waters of a dark and uncharted ocean, until he reaches an island. This is where the wild things are.

When he first encounters these melancholic beasts it is to witness one of them is in the midst of a deep rage. Max identifies a kindred spirit in this brooding outsider. He befriends this creature, Carol (Gandolfini), and, thanks to a deft bit of storytelling, declares himself king of these animals.

The beasts may look as though they have walked in off Sesame Street, but there is a bleakness to their existence. They are happy to have someone to guide them, and their first request to their new king is that he find a way to 'keep the sadness away'. Max embraces the task by instigating a series of boyish games.

Max shares an uneasy existence with his monstrous subjects. These are 'wild things', after all. They can be thoughtlessly, sometimes willfully cruel (like children?). Carol himself is insecure, possessive, and prone to dangerous mood swings. None of the creatures seems comfortable in its own hirsute skin.

Max's grand adventure turns out to be his first taste of responsibility. By declaring himself king, he has made himself accountable for the creatures' wellbeing. Once the games end and events take a dark turn, the task proves to be beyond him.

The film's massive merchandising potential (Jim Henson's Creature Shop has done an amazing job recreating on a massive scale the beasts from Maurice Sendak's book) has seen it marketed squarely at children. But it is much darker than your typical kids films, and it could be that adults will better appreciate the thematic nuances.

It offers little light against the darkness. Max leaves the beasts in emotional chaos — it is debatable whether they are better or worse off for having known him. Max returns home with greater awareness of the dangers of existing, a greater appreciation of his mother, and of the love, effort and sacrifice required to be responsible for another. But the distance that gapes between mother and son remains untraversed.

That's life. There aren't always resolutions. Even in discovering that, it's fair to say, Max has grown up a little.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze, maurice sendak, Max Records, Katherine Keener, James Gandolfini



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Existing comments

This beautifully written meditation takes me back (willingly!)to childhood rages, fears, joys and hopes - when the power of dreams was overmatched by the relative powerless of childhood. I will be catching this film; thanks. Barry G

Barry Gittins | 10 December 2009  

Great review

anna brown | 10 December 2009  

I agree that it's a great review. Only a grouch would point out that 'toothsome' means 'tasty' or 'appetising'. I think Tim meant 'toothy'.

David B | 10 December 2009  

Great Review. I will definitely be heading off to catch this one. Cheers.

belinda Caracatsanoudis | 11 December 2009  

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