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Posted on Tue, Oct 13, 2009 : 12:07 p.m.

'Where the Wild Things Are': facing scary kids in big fur suits

By Scott Beal

When you are a kid, other kids are wonderful and terrible. They are sweet and cruel in alternate breaths. You never know what to expect. Their lies are obvious but you believe them fully. Their honesty is naked and brutal. They cry over crumbs, but throw rocks with glee. Hugs on sight give way to the phrase “I'm not your friend anymore.” Baffling. Rapture and terror.

I grew up with plenty of trouble from other kids. And what I remember is that intervention by adults scarcely helped. Their grown-up reassurances, their advice and platitudes, counted for little. (Not to mention the “wait 'til you grow up and have real problems” response that infuriated me then and leaves me bitter still.) There was no magical, after school special, Katie Kazoo Switcheroo solution. This was acutely clear to me as a kid. It's scary and dispiriting to recall as a parent.

One of the wonderful things about Maurice Sendak's book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” is that it resists becoming a morality tale. The Wild Things don't teach Max a lesson; when he leaves the island of the Wild Things it's out of loneliness and hunger, not out of any realization that “we must respect others” or that “we can't run away from our problems.” Sure, we can probably all agree that those things are generally true, but we also must recognize that such truisms don't offer much comfort or direction in the midst of our confusion and misery.


The marvel of the new “Where the Wild Things Are” movie _ which I saw Oct. 6 at the Michigan Theater, at a special preview screening to benefit 826michigan _ is that it is deeply faithful to the minefield of childhood interactions. The Wild Things could be the neighborhood kids I grew up with, blown up to bigger-than-life-size (which itself feels true to how intimidating and fascinating other kids can be). Some stand by you no matter how badly you wound them. Others swear to love you forever, then try to kill you. You are never happier than when you are with them, but being with them puts you in constant danger of being crushed. In the movie, these truths are literal and visceral. It's spectacular to watch them play out on screen with the benefit of Spike Jonze's gorgeous direction.

I'm trying to avoid giving things away, but there's one scene I want to ask you to watch for - so if you're dead set against even mild spoilers, then please skip the rest of this paragraph. Skip the next one too. You can always come back and read this part later, after you see the movie. (Are they gone yet? OK.) There comes a moment of reckoning when Max is called upon to show off his superpowers to the monsters. As it turns out, his superpowers are less than they were cracked up to be, and the moment comes across as both funny and alarming. But you will recognize the specific moves he makes from an earlier scene. And if you think about the context of those moves the first time he made them, and the effect they had then, it will throw the idea of Max's “superpowers” into a whole different light, which to me suggests something excellent and heartbreaking about kids and imagination and love and family.

It's to the film's credit that, like its source material, it eschews any neat wrap-up. Max finally leaves the island with as much wariness and doubt as he arrived with. When he returns home, there's no implication that his problems are solved. In fact, if memory serves, the final scenes between Max and his mother are completely wordless. In a typical kids' movie, one would expect apologies and reassurances here, but it's as if Max and his mother know that these would be trifling and hollow when set against their recent experiences. Life is messy and hard, and will continue to be messy and hard. But somehow it's OK. That's what love does, and no one has to say so.

One note of alert: Though you've probably read Sendak's book repeatedly to your younger kids, I would be wary of taking them to the movie. In some moments, the monsters get genuinely scary. I recommend seeing it first on your own. But the operative part of that is to see it, because it may be the best onscreen rendition of the volatility of childhood that you will see.

Where the Wild Things Are opens in theaters this Friday, Oct. 16. View the trailer here.

Scott Beal is a stay-at-home dad and an 826michigan volunteer.



Tue, Oct 13, 2009 : 7:40 p.m.

Wow, great article, great review. Thanks for the caution re little ones. The trailer has it looking so gentle. I can't wait to see it!


Tue, Oct 13, 2009 : 3:23 p.m.

I grew up on this book and am so excited to see it. Thank you for the wonderful article about it!