Last night I was re-watching the new Spike Jonze remake of the children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are.
The first time I saw it was at the Imax downtown, and as I left the theater I was engulfed by a sea of grumbling parents. The movie, in their opinion, was too depressing, and therefore not suitable for their children.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this story, Maurice Sendak’s original book is about an unruly child named Max who is sent to bed without supper as punishment for his bad behavior. Max, who dons a wolf costume not dissimilar to footy pajamas, uses his imagination to enter the land where the wild things are.
Now the movie adaptation is a little different, and Spike Jonze (who is famous primarily for the films Adaptation and Being John Malkovitch) is notorious for intricate layering of themes. Let me just describe to you what this film said to me.
In the beginning of Where the Wild Things Are we watch Max doing the usual kid stuff, building snow forts, throwing snowballs, but he is alone. He can’t get the attention of his sister or mother, and when he becomes upset his temper explodes. He destroys things, makes a huge mess, and at one point even bites his mother. After these tantrums you can watch him come back down to earth, realizing what he’d done, and becoming depressed about his actions and how he can’t seem to control them.
Instantly I was invested in this film because I saw myself in this child. I too had a wicked temper, and beyond explosively breaking a number of things I shouldn’t have as a child, the minutes afterward are what I remember best. Suddenly realizing what I had done and that I couldn’t undo it, and being upset that I didn’t have control over myself.
Max’s mother shouts, “What is wrong with you?”
To which Max replies, “It’s not my fault.”
Max sees himself as a “wild thing” -as a monster basically. He can’t control himself, and that’s why he runs away to live among other wild things.
And this is where one might argue that meeting and befriending these monsters suggest Max is familiarizing himself with the monsters within himself, the part of him that makes him act out or feel depressed.
When he meets these monsters, Max is elated (and a little frightened) so he composes grandiose lies about himself until they crown him king. He promises to unite the monsters (whom have been having fights lately) so they can all live peacefully.
Joy, adventures, and impulsiveness ensues.
Sound familiar? This portion appears very similar to mania to me. Max makes himself the king of the world, then creates grandiose plans to build the most epic fort ever built.
The monsters biggest concern for Max is this,
“Will you keep the sadness away?”
The sadness in the film is very much like depression for those of us with bipolar disorder. It shows up no matter what we might do to combat it sometimes, but it can be easy in times of mania to think we have the power to keep it at bay.
As you can imagine, as hard as Max tries, he can’t keep the sadness away. It creeps back into the story until the monster’s turn on both him and each other, and then another destructive outburst takes place.
The expansive loneliness and sadness that Spike Jonze depicts hits depression right on the nose to me, and the whole story felt so familiar and true that I was surprised to hear the parents exclaim the movie was too depressing for their children.
This film is a perfect representation of what it felt like to be a child to me, and the subsequent struggle of wrestling with those “inner monsters” that kept turning on me.
No, there are no musical numbers, no brightly-colored cartoon characters, but there is humor. It may not distract from the difficulty of being a child (or in my case the difficulty of mental illness) but I consider that valuable.
When the monsters turn on him, Max returns home with a suggested new-found appreciation for his mother. He’s had to spend time looking closely at those monsters so he can now appreciate how difficult it can be to parent him.
Now, I’m sure my interpretation isn’t the singular interpretation of this story, and Spike Jonze stories always have more interpretations than most. Maybe he meant to capture something of bipolar disorder in this film, but it is just as likely that he didn’t. What I do know, though, is that it says something pretty bluntly about how I grew up and how I still feel. If that makes this inappropriate or dangerous for children to watch by normal standards, all the better.