Spike Jonzes’ Movie “Where the Wild Things Are”

Not a children’s film but a film about childhood — and that’s a quite different thing

“Where the Wild Things Are,” Directed by Spike Jonze (Warner Bros., 2009)

Spike Jonze’s movie Where the Wild Things Are is an homage to Maurice Sendak’s famous picture book of the same name–the one that nearly every parent and most children have memorized, the one that begins “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another.” Max, you’ll remember, is misbehaving when his mother sends him to his room. But the imaginative boy is unwilling to see that as a punishment and so, in his mind’s eye, he converts his room into a jungle and goes on a romp with the Wild Things. When Max tires of playing with these monsters, he returns home from his imaginary journey to find his supper waiting and “it was still hot.”

Jonze’s “take” on Sendak’s story has been eagerly awaited because the book is a beloved favorite and because Jonze is a hot young director in Hollywood (best known for his terrific movie “Being John Malkovich”). Now that the film has finally arrived, what is striking is Jonze’s abandonment of Sendak’s idea that Max’s adventure occurs entirely within the boy’s imagination. In the film, except for actors in giant monster suits, Jonze has the story unfold in a largely realistic environment–a landscape not so different from, say, that in “The Blue Lagoon.”

His big intention with this project, Jonze has said, was not to make a children’s film but “a film about childhood,” one that presents what it actually feels like to be a kid (in this case, a nine-year-old boy who lives with his divorced mother and older sister). What, then, does Jonze’s Max actually feel? At the heart of the film and throughout, what motivates Max (as well as the humans and monsters who surround him) can be described as “hurt feelings.” This movie is a bouillabaisse of misunderstandings, hot tears, anger, home-wrecking, hitting, and injured recriminations.

“Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak (Harper Row, 1963).

Given Jonze’s genius and Sendak’s wholehearted endorsement of him, expectations for the movie have been high. Unfortunately, the film falls short because except for its bath of emotions and some dirt-clod wars, nothing much happens. Moreover, for those who remember the book, the hurt feelings of Jonze’s Max seem a kind of moody preciousness compared to the boldness that was striking in the original Max. Fortunately, the book will survive this cinematic misstep. Like Max’s supper, the audacity of Sendak’s original offering still awaits the curious reader–and it is still hot.

A version of this essay appeared in October of 2009 in Parents Choice. For a related essay, see: Making Kids’ Stories “Dark”: Who is Disney’s “Into the Woods” For?

This is a movie about hurt feelings: misunderstandings, hot tears, anger, home-wrecking, hitting, and injured recriminations. Even the monsters are miffed and mumbling, couples are having arguments, etc. Basically, the movie seems a portrait of Jonze’s childhood (troubled, single mom, absent father, hurt). In other words, plain and simple, this is a movie about divorce. Jonze was right: This ISN”T a children’s movie but a movie about childhood (like, as Sendak said, “My Life as a Dog”). My beef is false advertising. For example, hundreds of kids from my daughter’s school marched to the theater on Friday. Many were disappointed. Because of the book’s association with the book & its title & with Sendak, people have expectations. But “Neverending Story” it wasn’t. Something entirely new it wasn’t. Think about the difference between a class in children’s literature and another on childhood in literature. I object to the false advertising and the mendacious marketing.

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11. October 2016 by
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