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 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons