Making the Grades
Maurice Sendak’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, is only 39 pages long, with very little text and distinctive illustrations. So turning the minimalist children’s story about a young boy who throws a tantrum into a 94-minute screen production takes some creative license on the part of Director Spike Jonze.
In this film adaptation, Max (Max Records) appears to be a bit older than his literary counterpart. He lives at home with his single mom (Catherine Keeper) and his teenaged sister (Pepita Emmerichs). Mom also has a boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), which Max doesn’t seem to be too happy about.
One night when the boyfriend is over, Max throws a tantrum, bites his mother during the scuffle and then dashes out of the house into the dark night. He runs and runs until he stumbles upon a small boat moored on the shore. Hopping into it, he sets sail across the open waters and eventually is tossed onto the beach of a strange island.
Initially Max is frightened of the ferocious creatures he discovers there, especially Carol (voice by James Gandolfini) who is smashing the other inhabitants’ wooden houses in a fit of rage. He is even more afraid when the monsters discover him and threaten to eat him for dinner. Mustering all of his pint-sized courage, Max stands up to the very big dwellers and declares himself a king.
It is soon evident that not everyone in this tropical location is happy. In fact there is a lot of loneliness, anger, jealousy and even some abusive behavior. KW (voice by Lauren Ambrose) has gone off to find other friends. Judith (voice by Catherine O’Hara) and Ira (voice by Forest Whitaker) are working on their relationship and Alexander (voice by Paul Dano) just wants to feel like someone is listening to him.
Believing that Max is indeed a king, the Wild Things are eager to let him try and make everything right among them. Unfortunately it isn’t any easier for Max to fix things in this fantasy world than it is in his real world.
While the movie offers some beautiful visuals, the story feels too brooding and pensive, especially for children. It’s offbeat quirkiness—something that Jonze has become known for in his other films—borders on the bizarre at times. And the comparisons between Max’s life at home and on the island will likely be difficult for young kids to grasp. Small viewers may also be bothered by the perilous situations Max encounters and some of the more intense depictions of emotions. Along with almost being eaten, Max is caught in a powerful ocean storm, nearly hit by falling trees and is later swallowed by one of the Wild Things. Even a pretend war that Max initiates turns ugly when several of the creatures are injured and Douglas (voice by Chris Cooper) has his arm pulled off.
Luckily, as in the book, Max has the option of hopping into his boat and heading back to his Mom. Yet none of the problems, either with his family or with the monsters, seem to be resolved. There are no happy endings and no sense of moving on to a better place. Instead, audiences merely experience a slice of life in the imaginary world of Max. If you love the book, that might be enough. But shelling out money to watch these Wild Things engage in a rowdy rumpus while Max bosses them around only left me howling over my depleted entertainment budget.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Where the Wild Things Are.
Why is Max so angry with his mother? How does he deal with the loneliness and frustration he is feeling? How does he use his imagination to escape the unhappiness in his life?
What are the challenges of adapting a book to the screen, especially one with as little storyline as found in Where The Wild Things Are?