Not afraid to scare

October 23, 2009

Spike Jonze's film adaptation of the classic children's story Where the Wild Things Are stays true to the book's message, writes Jim Ramey.

IT'S A sad comment on the American news media when the question offered up for Spike Jonze's film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, a truly original and vibrant work of art, is whether or not it's suitable for children.

A reviewer berated the movie as dull, boring and sad, and ultimately concluded that it is not for kids. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called it "rudderless," and wrote that the film sanctifies and celebrates "some of the most childish aspects of being a child."

Even Roger Ebert, who praised the film and its makers for creatively interpreting and filming Maurice Sendak's classic children's story, wrote, "The film will play better for older audiences remembering a much loved book...and not as well with kids who have been trained on slam-bam action animation."

This causes me to wonder what piece of art would be deemed worthy for children by the private-sector censors in the age of Amber Alert. It seems that the old Puritan adage that a child should be seen and not heard has become the Hollywood mantra for children in movies.

Max Records as Max in Where the Wild Things Are
Max Records as Max in Where the Wild Things Are

If children are portrayed at all, it's to show them as innocent, wise beyond their years or--easiest of all for writers--just small adults. The power of Where the Wild Things Are, both the book and the new movie, lay in their alternate portrayal of children that has its roots in Sendak's own tormented childhood.

Sendak created the Wild Things, the creatures on a mystical island, based on drawings he and his sister would make of his Polish Jewish immigrant aunts and uncles who would come to his parents' house for dinner. They spoke little or no English, and were some of the last European Jews to escape the Holocaust by going to America.

They would gush over the Sendak children each time they came over, to the point where Maurice and his sister would hide from them as they came, and make fun of them in secret illustrations. The pinching of a child's cheek--that act that seems so universally despised by kids and so incredibly delightful to distant elder relations--created this little act of rebellion that led to a book that has lasted two generations.


Where the Wild Things Are, written by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, directed by Jonze, adapted from the book by Maurice Sendak, starring Maxwell Records.

JONZE HAS said of the film, "Everything we did, all the decisions we made, were to try to capture the feeling of what it is to be 9." Like the book, the film achieves this brilliantly. Maxwell Records, the child actor who plays Max, gives a stunningly simple and wide-eyed portrayal of the king of the Wild Things that matches the script by Jonze and Dave Eggers perfectly.

The opening scenes show Max off the island and at his home. There is nothing extraordinary, except for the fact that it was put into a Hollywood movie. He and his older sister are raised by their mother in a nice but small house. The mother works and is having vague problems that force her to work more than she'd like. Max's teenage sister Claire isn't the evil jealous sister of the Disney mold. Instead, she loves her younger brother, but would rather spend time with friends her own age.

It's important to note here that none of these minor inconveniences are at all acceptable to Max, who demands attention from both his sister and mother at a breakneck pace. This is, to any honest adult, exactly how we acted toward our older loved ones when we were 9 years old.

I've always thought of this "childish aspect" of childhood as the beginning of becoming an adult. The need to justify yourself to those who you've identified as already being where you want to be is something that doesn't go away with puberty; it's perhaps a childish aspect of adulthood as well.

But it's not that Max simply wants to become an adult, like so many tired films portray children and teenagers. He is at the stage where fun is the alpha and omega. Why, when there's so much fun to be had, would anyone want to talk on the phone, or be taught in class about how the sun will one day die out, or eat dinner with their mother's boyfriend?

So instead of sitting still and accepting the dull life set out before him, Max runs away. Actually, he sails away, and when he gets to the island where the Wild Things are, he shows himself to be king. Sort of.

I'll reveal no more of the plot. This is a rare film that must be seen, and seen on the big screen. But it's worth noting that there's something very interesting that the Wild Things immediately ask of the newly crowned king that wasn't even imagined in Sendak's book. They ask him time and again, in actions and words, to make the sadness go away.

They play, and they dig, and they howl, and they do all the things that Wild Things do, but they can't make the sadness go away. Max's answer is the only thing that he knows--more playing and digging and howling. But this works only briefly, and eventually, the only answers Max can find force him closer to the last jump and barrel-roll into adulthood.

But this isn't a coming–of-age movie. In the final scene, it's joyously unclear whether Max has learned anything from his adventure. One thing that is clear is that, whether scary or sad or belligerent, children should see this movie if for no other reason than as an antidote to movies made by men who want them to grow up.

When Maurice Sendak's book first came out, it was labeled too frightening for children. One librarian even said, "This is not a book you leave in the presence of sensitive children to find in the twilight." Influenced by the fact that he came of age as a Jew during the Holocaust, where his cousins were dying in concentration camps, Sendak responded to this criticism by saying that you can show a child anything, as long as it's the truth.

Maurice stayed true to this idea in his visionary children's books, and Jonze has done the same with this film. It deserves a place along with The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal as movies that respect children enough to try and scare them.

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