Unreal Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are

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Ten sentences. That’s how long Maurice Sendak’s original 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are, is. Yet surprisingly someone saw a movie in those ten sentences, and even more surprisingly, someone made that movie. The result? To quote the New York Times concerning the original book, “There are different ways to read the wild things, through a Freudian or colonialist prism, and probably as many ways to ruin this delicate story of a solitary child liberated by his imagination.” This movie? It’s most definitely one of the ways to ruin it.

Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of a young boy named Max who is quite angry for no discernible reason. The only things that set him off in the film’s short introduction are that his sister’s friends accidentally crush his snow fort and his mom is on a date with a man he doesn’t know. Both events spawn crazy temper tantrums, where in the first one he trashes his sister’s room and the second causes him to run out of his house, sail across the ocean, and land on an island filled with monsters.

And what to do when landing on a strange island with monsters that look like Muppets mutated in some sort of nuclear accident? Why, declare yourself king of course! When the monsters accept his newfound appointment as their leader, he spends the rest of the film ordering them to have fun. To wrestle around in the woods, to have dirtball fights, to build a giant fort. But the monsters have their own problems amongst themselves, and it becomes clear there’s not much their boy king can really do to help them.

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The boat represents…the psychological weight his sister’s recent foray into puberty presses on him.

The movie’s high points are its visuals and its soundtrack, with shockingly good creature effects that seamlessly blend CGI with physical costuming, and the music provided by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O and her chorus of children will be stuck in your head for days. But aesthetics aside, the film is deeply disappointing and misleading, and I maintain that it probably should never have been made in the first place.

Let me be perfectly clear about this: Where the Wild Things Are is in no way, shape or form a kids’ movie, which a multitude of severely misled parents in my theater learned the hard way. I’ve been saying from the beginning that the monsters are terrifying, and guess what? They are. Yes, they are occasionally amusing, but the film as a whole is overwhelmingly dark and depressing, and though the psychological and emotional issues dealt with in the film will fly over the heads of children like they were watching Synecdoche, New York. But what there IS no mistaking is a bunch of terrifying monsters planning to eat a little boy or fighting to the point where they quite literally RIP EACH OTHER’S ARMS OFF. Not exactly something I’d want my hypothetical six year-old to see and have nightmares about for the rest of the week.

But if it’s not for kids, then who is Where the Wild Things Are for? With the obvious exception of stoners, who will be delighted by giant talking goats and castles made of twigs, it isn’t really clear. The film takes pretentiousness to a level I didn’t even think was possible. It’s true that Sendak’s original poem has been psychoanalyzed for decades, but I don’t have decades to make sense out of an alleged kids movie I just watched.

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The desert represents…his barren emotional state when his father left.

Certain parts of the allegory are clear, the lead monster Carol is Max, and the entire island is a psychological coping device Max makes up to deal with his shitty life, which as is shown in the film, is really not all that shitty, and he just comes off like sort of a delusional brat most of the time. I suppose it is possible to spend an inordinate amount of time matching up each character and event with a certain aspect of Max’s psyche, but more often than not, it’s almost impossible to do, given the fact that the film only contains about eight minutes of real backstory of the character.

But if you didn’t bring a psychology textbook to the theater with you, what do you get? The answer is a bunch of mostly unhappy monsters rampaging around a deserted island with a little boy egging them on via copious amounts of yelling. There really isn’t a plot to speak of aside from that. They wrestle, they have snowball (dirtball) fights and they build forts, all things we’ve seen Max do in the real world, clearly manifested in his strange fantasy to serve some purpose, but what that purpose is never really becomes clear. Max leaves the island in a state of disarray, and even though he returns home to the loving arms of his mother, it’s not really clear what exactly his mental vacation has taught him.

Where the Wild Things Are made a mistake even trying to masquerade as a kids’ movie. If it wanted to go deep and go dark (which it clearly did), they should have just gone all out with it, and made the entire affair a truly black, and heavily psychological anti-comedy, rather than a lot of fluff and a few Freudian references. Now that would have been a bit of rumpus that was truly interesting to see.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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The dying sun represents….the idea that this movie was ever a well-conceived project in the first place


  • Madison

    Good review, Paul. I didn’t love this movie, but I thought it was well-made. I feel like you’re being particularly harsh on it because it wasn’t what you expected it to be, though.

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  • I like re-watching movies.
    I will never watch this movie again.

  • Josh

    2.5 stars was a little generous, in my opinion.

  • MatchFrame

    You certainly seemed to be grumpy about this movie, just because it didn’t spell everything out for you. Most importantly, this isn’t and never was intended as a Hollywood children’s movie, it’s a movie about childhood.

    The explanations for a lot of it are pretty straightforward. Imaginative, selfish child who doesn’t know how to deal with his feelings (like most kids) escapes in his head to a crazy land where his wild emotions are manifested as creatures. Through his adventure, he learns that the world doesn’t revolve around him and his mother and other fight the same overwhelming emotions everday, just like him.

    I read a few interviews with the writers, and most of this is from their words and confirmed pretty solidly by watching the movie.

    And why are you so offended by a movie that mostly takes place in a kid’s head dealing with a lot of metaphorical psychology?

  • Madison

    I knew this movie was going to be polarizing.

  • lee

    I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood the movie.

    It works at many levels, in terms of pure fun, in terms of conflict & redemption, but very importantly in examining the psychology of mindfulness (even in the Buddhist sense).

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/addiction-in-society/200910/mindfulness-in-addiction-and-film

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  • xanthe

    I loved this movie.
    I think you wanted it to be a nicely framed, sweet, cautionary tale with a cute lesson to wrap it up at the end. This is probably why you were disappointed.

    I took my eight year old niece to see it and she adored it, we later played wild things in the garden, howling and throwing grass at each other.
    It reminded her and myself of the power of imagination.
    The strength of emotions inside everyone that can be harnessed to build cities or consume people.
    And the value of family. That family is beyond blood sometimes.
    Overall it was fun and touching and as WILD as I hoped it would be.

    I think your writing that was making fun of the psychological aspect was a waste of space. Sure you can break it down into metaphorical film language and analyze it till the frames fall apart, or you can enjoy it as a rich landscape of imaginings and discoveries, fear and love and learning to relate to others.

    The book was ten sentences, and the movie managed to go for a full length period without venturing into assumptions too far off the original story and pictures. I admire this. If it turned itself into some drastically altered picture perfect ‘so max remembered to always brush his teeth and kiss his mummy thrice before bed’ type creation i would be puking.
    I was a child who grew up with this book as one of my imagination triggers. I believe new generations can gain the same horizon broadening, fun, wild experience from the movie.
    In a world with so many ways of broadcasting issues, and so many things on the weight of children’s shoulders (exemplified in the classroom scene in which max and other children are taught the sun is dying), what is wrong with a bit of dirty, silly, scary, gross, funny imagination?

    I am still in contact with my inner child but can also analyze films harshly and I feel the beauty in the film was that it captured the wild, illogical, fierce forces of imagination as a child without trying to be something it wasn’t. The book was never a morally rich story about being a better person and the movie focused on what was there with a bit of creative license that i enjoyed thoroughly.

    It was beautiful, wild and powerful.
    Children are not made of cup cakes and glitter. They have strong emotions just like adults. It is so demeaning to assume they are only capable of watching shows that sprinkle sugar over real thoughts, dreams and adventures. Think of what children stories were fifty years ago. There is nothing wrong with a story just being about learning to rediscover the imagination.

    If you want to psychoanalyze yourself whilst sitting next to your child in the theater because you don’t have the imagination capacity, feel free.