Symbolism in the Film "Where The Wild Things Are"

This post is an analysis of the Spike Jonze film Where the Wild Things Are. I assume readers have either already seen it or don't mind my giving away what happens in it.

I was expecting a fun fantasy movie, given the fact that it's based on a children's book, and because of quirky director Jonze (who also directed Being John Malkovich.) What I didn't expect was to see one of the most emotionally moving films I've seen in years.

The film starts by establishing the emotional life of a young boy, Max. His mother works hard. His older sister ignores him to play with her friends. He builds an igloo, gets into a snowball fight with neighborhood kids, and they collapse it on him. He is scared and crying, and his sister, who is among the friends, does not help him.

His mother comes home, and tries to pay attention to him, and it's clear that she loves him, but her work is stressful and apparently in danger. She spends time on the phone while Max wants attention. He wants attention from her later when she is with a date in the living room. He acts out, ordering her around. She tells him he's out of control. He bites her and runs away.

He boats to a land where there are big monsters and becomes their king by lying to them about his powers. The society's current problem is loneliness and sadness.

The world Max enters appears to represent his mental landscape.

When he arrives, Carol (a male wild thing) is angry and smashing houses, which represents destroying the igloo. They all roughhouse and end up in a huge pile. Max is trapped inside, just like he was in the igloo. However, here he finds it comforting and warm, and they all sleep like that. Perhaps this is how he comes to grips with the igloo experience.

The main monster character, Carol, wants attention from KW. However, she does not have time for him, and wants to pay attention instead to Bob and Terry. The attraction to Bob and Terry is inexplicable because they appear to be captive birds who can only squawk. I believe Carol represents Max, KW represents his mother, and Bob and Terry represent the phone. Max's mother spends a good deal of her time talking to the phone, an entity, like the birds, that Max cannot understand.

Carol takes Max to a cave in which he has built himself a model of an ideal world. The model itself represents this new land for Max. Max instructs the wild things to manufacture a huge fort. The build it and everyone is happy.

The arrival of Bob and Terry ignites Carol's jealousy, and the society continues to unravel. Earlier Judith expresses dissatisfaction with Max, accusing him of playing favorites. She tells him that as the leader, he is never allowed to get angry. Only the subjects of the king can get angry. This is when Max comes to accept that leadership is difficult, and his mother can legitimately get upset at him.

Carol's anger increases when he feels Max drifting away, and he pulls off the arm of another wild thing, Douglas. This represents Max biting his mother. In the same scene, Max uses his mother's words on Carol: "You're out of control!"

Eventually they realize he is not a king at all. The wild things return to their melancholy state and Max returns to the real world, less selfish, and more appreciative and mature.

Overall, it's a very sad movie. The wild things are big and dangerous, but ultimately lonely and looking for a savior  He leaves them in the state he found them, or perhaps in a slightly worse state. Looking at Max's experience in the new land, he could have learned the following lessons: Leadership is difficult or impossible. People must make their own happiness and not expect others to provide it.

The wild things are unhappy, and I think they are permanently so. They are like an unhappy family, bound together but quick to be on each other's nerves. We can understand KW's need to get away. In our world, as adults anyway, we can leave our families save for occasional visits. For the wild things, there are no others.

I'm done talking about the symbolism.

This Is A Movie For Adults

Although it contains some whimsy, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this is a film for adults. However, it could be that the book is better for adults too. I found this short article interesting and convincing:

Overall I found the movie very moving. It didn't matter that the wild things were ten feet tall and had claws. They were people with problems I recognized right away. They spoke softly, intimately, with human voices and had human names. It is also the only movie I really know if that deals so effectively with anger in young children. I was almost teary-eyed in the first ten minutes. My favorite film, Kiki's Delivery Service, has a bit of that, but the anger is not as intense, and the reaction is not violent. I recommend this film for when you're feeling contemplative. It's heady, sad, and psychological. I  think children would find it boring.

Pictured: Graffiti based on the book. By Scott Woods-Fehr from Saskatoon, Canada (Where The Wild Things Are) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Anonymous said…
great review..gave me a whole new perspective.
Anonymous said…
Great analysis, but I think you might be missing something about Max's understanding of leadership at the end. You already drew parallels between the scene where Carol is out of control and the scene were Max is out of control, and also pointed out that Max uses the same words as his mother. I think these parallels also point to another message, and that has something to do with how Max came to terms with his mother's apparent dismissiveness. He realizes that as "king," he can't magically make all of the right decisions and expect everyone else to be happy. Someone will be upset for whatever reason or something will be out of control. To the Wild Things he is almost like a surrogate parental figure, and they expect him to solve all of their problems. This is exactly what Max seemed to want from his mother—to pay attention, to fix his loneliness and the separation he felt from his family. So in a way, I think this movie about that point in a child's life where they realize, no, their parents aren't perfect. They're normal human beings just like everyone else. They are allowed to get upset (just like Max did to the mean lady monster, I can't remember her name) and they make mistakes.
I hadn't thought of this until I read your piece. Thank you. I hope you agree on some level.
Jim Davies said…
I agree. Very interesting!
I know I'm pretty late commenting on this, but I just had to. This is one of my favourite films, and I just happened to stumble upon this while searching the Internet for a site where I could watch it again.

Some parts of your analysis make sense to me, and some I didn't see before I read this; however, this is not how I interpreted the movie.

I believe that each of the wild things represents a different aspect of Max's personality (except for KW, but I'll get to her in a moment).

-Carol is the most obvious. He's sad and lonely and throws tantrums when he doesn't get his way, just like Max. Since he is the one Max feels closest to, I think this is the side of himself that he most accepts.
-Judith is mean. I actually think that Judith is the wild thing that represents Max when he bit his mom. The reason he doesn't get along with Judith is because he doesn't want to accept the fact that he is bad sometimes.
-Ira represents the part of him that wants to please other people. We saw that Max made a gift for his sister in the real world, and he made up a story for his mom when she asked him; I believe Ira's constant agreement with everything everyone says is parallel to that.
-Douglass represents Max's suppressed knowledge. He knows the stuff he's seeing isn't real, but he feels it's more pleasant than the truth, so he pretends as a means of escape.
-Alexander represents the dumb stuff that Max does to get attention, like building his spaceship-fort and demanding that his mother get into it before the lava comes. He knows she doesn't want to play his silly games, but he's going to try anyway, just to see how much attention she will pay him.
-Then there's the Bull, who just sits there and doesn't talk for most of the film. I think this represents Max when he is in a brooding mood, like when he was done wrecking his sister's room and just wanted to lie in bed staring at the ceiling. When his mom came in, he took her by the hand and led her to the scene of the crime but didn't tell her with words what he had done.

Now we come to KW. I don't think she represents his mom. She's too childish to be a mother figure. I always thought KW was a symbol for Clare, how he wished she would spend time with him instead of her "stupid friends." Just like Carol hates Bob and Terry, Max probably resents Clare's friends after they smashed his igloo and then just abandoned him.

I don't really think that when Max left the wild things were in a worse state than before, because, even though they are still sad and lonely, they have learned a valuable lesson about sticking together, apologizing for their mistakes, and at least trying to control their tempers. In a way, they are now better people because of their experience with Max.

As for the more adult-oriented theme of the film, yes I agree. This movie is very sad and dark. It is much more appropriate for for more mature audiences. However, I've found that most "adults" (I use quotations for this word, because the 30-somethings generally consider themselves to be adults and the 20-somethings to sill be kids) don't like the film. All the adults I know who've seen it were disgusted by its dark theme and depressing storyline; but the "young adults" and teens loved the heck out of it. (I guess my generation is just way into depressing emo stuff.) On another note, while some kids probably find it boring and/or scary, my little siblings (ages 2-12) love it. We watch it together frequently.

All-in-all, I'd say that this film is quite excellent, if you can stomach it.
Ikeda said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ikeda said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ikeda said…
I think the symbolism of the post and the comments are pretty interesting. I do have my own thoughts about it, and may not be very different on some aspects from what you guys think.

First, about the controversy of KW. I agree with the guy above about not being his mother, but his sister or at least what he would wish of a sister figure (also could be a mix, if yo have an elder sister who took care of you when you were little you know how many aspects of a mother-figure is within an elder sister). So I think KW is a complex woman-caring person. Not to mention she's distand from the others monsters at first, like she thinks they don't her around, she wouldn't fit and don't "party like the others" as his sister wouldn't fit on his world.

But I disagree on all monster have a direct symbolism of either a specific character of Max's life (family members or friends) or they are all "different aspects of Max". And, as for Judith, I think she's an image of her mom when she's with her male "friend", a big hint is that Judith has a male partner, Ira, who never speaks to him but is always besides her), but mainly because Judith gets mad at him or disagrees, tells max how he "takes sides", which is Max image of his mom when she's with her friend, she "suddenly changes", ignores him, gets mad at him, yells at him.

And as for Douglas and Alexander, they are typical stereotypes of friends everybody has/had as kids, one who always takes your side even when you're wrong or "out of control" and, for Douglas, someone who's always seems frightened by energetic situations or imminent violence and always seems to get bullied. So, in my opinion, this can't really be reflected as Max self/personality, even though it could be situational... but since he's just a kid, I don't think he's able to produce that many images and aspects of his personality on those monsters, but a combination of imagination, personality, identity, family issues and feelings.
Ikeda said…
Apologies about some grammar mistakes, English is not my main language and all was written from a cellphone.
I totally agree with you about the characters , I especially felt kw was obviously the sister and Bob and Terry her friends max doesn't understand why she thinks they are so great. I just watched it with my 10 year old and she enjoyed it and I liked being able to talk to her about the different emotions that were represented.
Luiz said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luiz said…
I know I'm also pretty late in this one but I have to comment. In my opinion you guys are all wrong about KW hahaha. The wild things dont represent a person itself and neither Max self thoughts and feelings, but instead they represent abstract feelings and emotional states that we all have.

KW represents not his mother neither his sister but an older and more mature state person contrasting with Carol, a more childish and younger state person.

Max is currently going from Carol to KW.

Think about it, is no wonder that she looks alot like his sister or his mother, it's because they are already older and kinda behave like KW and Max is becoming one just like them.

That's why we have the impression she kinda knows what Carol is passing through and is always looking at him from above, that's why she sometimes dont want to play along with the other wild things (because she consider it to be child stuff), that's why she wants to know other people and spend time with Bob and Terry and get out from the other wild things world, that's why she understands and is more supportive to Max than Carol, it is because she already went through what Max and Carol is passing through.
Anonymous said…
Also, something to add, i believe that when Max says "you're out of control" to Carol there is a switch in positions for Max and his mother. Max now feels how his mother feels when he was acting ruthless and rebellious. I believe that Spike Jonze is trying to convey that Max has learnt what empathy is and what it feels like to be in someone else's shoes.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
When u feel depressed after watching a depressing movie like dis, eat McDonalds
Anonymous said…
A message from the Government of Canada
Anonymous said…
... I mean America
Anonymous said…
I agree with Grammarshine Hyena, 100%.

I also think that adults are not fond of the film because it brings them back to a dark place that we all have had in our lives. A trauma of some kind, like when Max's igloo was destroyed and his sister did jack-shit about it. We as adults, know that THAT moment is going to stick with him for the rest of his life, and it's uncomfortable to watch a childhood trauma be depicted in such a raw yet accurate way.

Max was right; he said, "I wish you guys had a mom." That's *exactly* what they need. A grown-up to step up and lovingly guide them through life the way children just... can't. I hope they get one, one day. ^_^
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Anonymous said…
I think that, anybody can interpret the movie in their own way. I personally thought that Carol represented Max's missing father, who had troubles with KW. Max's sister does say one the phone she has to go to her dads. I cried when I saw how such a large, angry, king eating beast could break down into tears.
Unknown said…
What do you think means KW "eats" Max yo protect him?
In my opinion, this was the most dramatic scene in the movie.

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