Where the Wild Things Are

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.

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5 responses to “Where the Wild Things Are

  1. I have never seen this, but I see the draw. Now, I’ve noticed a pattern. The majority of people I’ve heard remark about this film carry Dxs. And not all the same one either.

    I think this is probably symbolic of what a lot of people felt as children. It sounds a lot like how a person with an ASD diagnosis might experience childhood. Childhood isn’t supposed to be as turbulent as that. But, often, it is. And those feelings stay with many of us throughout our lives.

    Personally, I think it’s something school-aged children should probably see. I know parents are tempted to put their kids in a bubble, and I see why. These parents probably felt the same emotional tug as you. It doesn’t always feel nice, being reminded of past pains. So, these parents feel compelled to protect their kids from the “bad mojo”.

    Kids need to see that the world isn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and puppies. There are clouds, rain, and sharp teeth out there. And, this movie would probably be a big relief to a lot of children that feel the same, but discouraged from saying so. It could be reassuring. Children need room to experience the world themselves so they can grow. Shame on those parents!

    I’d let my son see it, if I thought it was age-appropriate. The only reason I put an age level on it is so I could stick a developmental level on it. Right now, he’s probably too young to get the themes correctly. But, I think this movie could be useful to him in a few years. I know he’s just as frustrated with me as I am with him.

    • I agree with you, and I don’t consider it any more depressing than, say, All Dogs Go to Heaven (which also has some questionable religious sorts of themes on top of it). I’m not sure I understand the difference, besides the idea that kids might get scared about the constant threat Max is under of being eaten by monsters, friendly or not.

      Those bubbles always seem to have many more negative effects than intended, but I do say that as someone who has only seen things from the outside looking in. I’m not a parent, so I can’t say for sure what actions I might take, but at the appropriate age I think I would want my kids to watch this one. If it brings up questions about emotions or actions, so be it. I think kids should have the opportunity to talk about those sorts of things as often as possible.

      • Have you ever seen Ol’ Yeller? Or Bambi? Geez! And they’re worried about this movie? Stigma in action. I would guess any parent who lost a parent as a child would be loathe to have their kids watch Lion King or Bambi.

        I’ve been on both sides of the bubble. I’ll tell you this. I can see where the impulse is. But, if a parent has a true love and understanding of their kids, they know to back off. Making the adjustment to adulthood was very difficult because I was so smothered. I didn’t like it. I tried to burst the bubble hundreds of times. I wanted to live and learn. But, my parents were content with severe punishments that restricted me to the house for months at a time.

        I am not a permissive parent. Some people even tell me that I’m hard on my son. But, I give him the room to make those mistakes. Yeah, I’m taking him to the hospital to get stuff out of his ears and nose, but the point is that he’ll never have to wonder “What if” later on, do it, and then freak out because he doesn’t know what to do. Then, he’s even more likely to make a bigger mistake trying to cover the first one!

        Most of the time, the results of the mistake are almost punishment enough. My son knows what dangerous things are and why they are dangerous. Hot, cold, and sharp hurt! Running in the house and jumping on the bed could get someone hurt. And he knows better than to touch dangerous items.

        My sister’s kid is still hurting himself on stuff. Why? Because she’ll yell at him before he even gets a chance to find out for himself. Eventually, he starts tuning her out and doing it anyway. I’ll never forget the day he cut himself on a razor. Duh! T.D got a tiny cut from playing with scissors. He has hardly touched a sharp object since.

        Point being, I agree with you. Parents need to back off. It is probably more scarring to be completely isolated than carefully exposed.

  2. I’ve never seen it but I feel like I want to now. And at the same time feel like I should avoid it for fear of it triggering something in me. Interesting.

    • It definitely triggers some sort of expansive emotional response when I watch it, but every once in a while I need that (if, for no other reason, than to feel alive).

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