There's One In All Of Us

WtWTAFigures The image above is from my office. I have a bookshelf in between two chairs, and on top Max and the "Wild Things" from Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are dance on in a relentless wild rumpus.

I keep these figures there so that I see them every day and am reminded of that scene from the book because there's something very attractive about it to me.  I find the image of a land where I am king of all that is wild and dangerous and frightening and adventurous and magical to be very appealing and conducive to my "process."  Of course, I know it's an illusion, itself a figment of imagination run rampant, but that doesn't matter, not in the moment.  Whenever faced with trouble, whether of my own doing or not, I like the fantasy that I might conquer it all through sheer will and declare a dance rather than a tantrum.

Even though I'm now an adult, a grown up, with a child of my own, I like this idea. I've always liked it.  I can't tell you that Where the Wild Things Are has always been my favorite book or that I've always loved it as much as I do, not because it wasn't or I didn't, but rather because I simply can't remember.  You'd have to ask my parents (which I haven't, so I can't tell you what they'd say).  However, I can, at the very least, tell you I've always connected with it.  Of course, whether I could articulate why or not is a different story altogether.

I tell you all this just to try to put into context a little bit for you how excited I've been about the film version of Where the Wild Things Are that opened this weekend.  I've been sincerely worried about it.  I had the same thoughts as so many who have loved the book as children and carried some deep relation to it on into our adulthoods, which could be somewhat summed up with the following exhortation, "They better get it right."

But what is "right" with regards to a masterpiece of children's literature that is only ten sentences long, a mere 339 words, and extends just as firm a grip on the hearts and dreams of adults as it does on those of their kids?  I honestly don't know.  Even though I wanted them to get it right, I would have been completely and utterly at a loss as to define for you just what I meant by that had you asked.  So, having now seen the movie, if you were to ask me, "did they get it right?" I think I'd still have to say, "I don't know."

What I can tell you, though, is this: what they did, in fact, "get" I absolutely adore.

Some people have expressed to me their interest in my thoughts on the movie. As I've just said, I loved it.  So, there you go.  For any of you who haven't seen it, let me offer a "brief" review.  Then, for those of you who actually stick around, I want to try to express on a deeper level the resonant affection I have for this film.

The movie follows the same basic plot-line as the book, which can be summed up like this:

A mischievous young boy in a wolf costume named Max causes trouble for his mother who lashes out at him, leading him to escape to the land of the "wild things" whom he "tames" and over whom he is then made king.  As his first order of business, Max declares that a "wild rumpus" begin.  However, after the fun has run its course, Max finds himself longing to be back home.  So, he leaves the "wild things," though they don't want him to go, and returns to his home and his dinner.

However, don't go in expecting a mere re-telling of the book. In fact, don't go in expecting a children's movie at all.  I've found that most of the criticism lobbed at the film is because of some unmet expectations.  So, if you go in expecting either of the preceding, know that you're going to be soon joining the camp of the naysayers.

Even though it follows that same basic plot-line, it's very, very different from the book and Spike Jonze (the co-writer and director) and his crew (including co-writer Dave Eggers) have made a beautifully raw film about childhood, but not necessarily a film for children.  It's worth mentioning that they did so with cooperation, participation and blessing from Maurice Sendak who's been quoted as saying, "I would rather not have had a film than turn it into a kiddie movie."

Rest assured, it's no "kiddie movie."  You see, in adapting the book into a screenplay, Jonze and Eggers remembered what all children know but adults tend to forget, namely that childhood is not cute, precious and innocent.  Rather, it's actually hard, painful, confusing, awkward, terrifying, violent and even, sometimes, lonely while also being endlessly adventurous, paradoxically joyful and heartbreaking, and most definitely fun.  So, that's the movie they made.

Max is now the son of divorced parents and lives with his mother who's busy with her own problems and a sister who's leaving him behind in her own quest to grow up.  The kid's got problems, both of his own doing and as a result of living in an imperfect world, and is definitely having trouble processing and dealing with them.  This results in fits of pure rage and attention-seeking acts of selfishness.  His mother reaches her limit with Max when he acts out in front of her new boyfriend causing her embarrassment.  She fails in an effort to calm/control/comfort/condemn/convict/corral Max resulting in his running away from home.  Max discovers a boat and sails to the island of the wild things, a dysfunctional family of larger-than-life monsters over whom he soon becomes king in the hopes that he'll keep them together and make everything the way it should be.  The rest of the film follows the results of the very real truth that it's impossible for anyone to do that.

I think everything about this film is great.  The writing.  The directing.  The performances, whether by live actors, like the perfectly genuine and relatable Catherine Keener or the new star-in-the-making Max Records, or the performers in the wild things suits designed by the Jim Henson Company, or the voice talent, a dream-cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose and James Gandolfini (I admit that having heard Gandolfini's voice in the trailer, I hated it.  However, hearing it in context, there's no one else to play his part).  The cinematography is both beautiful and unsettling, and the music by Karen O is pitch-perfect (pun intended).  Plus, the CGI utilized is actually believable and serves the character (as much as it pains me to say it, take notice George Lucas).

I give it an A++ or 5 terrible roars out of 5.

I'll eat it up, I love it so.

To sum up, here's the tweet I posted right after I'd seen it.

Just saw Where the Wild Things Are. Wow! I'm a wreck. Loved it. Really really loved it. If you didn't I understand. But... Wow. I did.

If you are one of those who just want to see the images of the book move (and I completely get that) you can check out the animated version here.

Now, if anyone else is left, let me warn you that SPOILERS MOST CERTAINLY FOLLOW. Scroll down if you want.  If not, don't worry, I won't take it personally.

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Ultimately the real reason I love Where the Wild Things Are (the film) is because it's truth. It's an incomplete truth to be sure, but truth none the less.

As I'm sure you know from seeing the trailers or posters like the one above, the marketing tagline for the film is, "There's One In All Of Us."  And this is true.  That's actually where the wild things are.  Inside each of us are those things that are out of control or wild.  They're terrible and frightening.  They want to be our friend yet so often can't be trusted.  They tell us we're in charge yet constantly seek to consume us.  We can get lost indefinitely in being engaged with them, and this engagement can be both playful and tragic.  They're broken and selfish and manipulative but also attractive and curious.

Yes, this is truth.  There is indeed a wild thing inside of each of us.  However, it's an incomplete truth, because, like Max, most of us, perhaps even all of us, don't just have one wild thing, but a whole family of them.  Inside Max it seems there are seven, maybe more, but these are the ones he meets, with whom he engages and from whom he's able to learn a bit about himself and how he relates to the world around him.

I'm not a literary or film critic by any means.  However, let me take a minute and tell you, just from my perspective, what aspects of Max's character I feel each of the wild things represents.

WTWTA_icon07_96x96Ira is his innocence, goodness, artistry and naivete, and also Max's openness to trust.  You might say that Ira is Max's child-likeness.

WTWTA_icon03_96x96Judith is Max's skepticism, his burgeoning realization that things are not what they seem and probably shouldn't be believed.  She's weariness and sarcasm.  She's kinda like his potential grown-upness.  Incidentally and significantly, Judith and Ira go together like husband and wife.

WTWTA_icon08_96x96Alexander is Max's insecurity and need for acceptance and affirmation.  He's also honesty and hurt.

WTWTA_icon06_96x96Douglas is reason and practicality.  However, he also possesses the propensity for relativism if it seems to serve the greater good.

WTWTA_icon05_96x96The Bull is Max's silent strength.  He also embodies all that is frightening.  He's a thinker and represents potential.

WTWTA_icon04_96x96KW is love, not a perfect love, but rather one that's jaded, that's seeking someone to return their understanding of what love is.  She's a protector and a realist.

WTWTA_icon02_96x96Then there's Carol.  While Max is declared king of the wild things, Carol is their de facto leader.  This makes sense because he's the one that is most like the Max we see.  He's aggression and anger born out of a frustration with the sense that things aren't how they should be.  He is passion personified.

Of course, these are oversimplifications.  The wild things are actually much more complicated and fuller characters than I've described here, but I think, hopefully, you get my point and can even begin to notice some of the wild things you have in you.

We all, at some point or another, think that this world would be better if we could just control it. We think this, of course, because we believe, on some (deep, often hidden) level that this world is our world, and that is the land of the wild things.  It's a world in which we seemingly tame our wild things by giving false credentials for why we're qualified to be in charge and are then declared king to rule as we see fit with the promise that we, like Max, could "be a truly great king."  There's just one problem... the land, like the things, is wild itself and cannot be tamed.

After Max is declared king and they have their wild rumpus, Carol takes Max on a tour of his kingdom.  Along the way Carol is telling him that everything that can be seen belongs to him as the king.  However, Carol then begins to make exceptions, like the holes that Ira makes in the trees or "that stick" or "that rock."  See?  Even though Max is king he's not fully in control, nor could he ever be.  There are even parts of his kingdom that already are "not that great."

Of course, like us, Max can't see this, at least not at first.  He believes he can be king and he can make things better.  He immediately sets forth trying to do so, to construct a place in which everyone will be safe and protected and can live together in Utopian harmony where they can "all sleep together in one big pile."  It doesn't take long for conflict to arise, though.  And what is Max's solution but more conflict.

He divides the group into two teams of "good guys" and "bad guys" and proceeds to initiate a dirt clod war (remember those?  I do).  We might be tempted to think how childish this is of Max, yet I can't help but realize this is so often how I address conflict in my own life, whether personal or corporate.  I compartmentalize and oversimplify, drawing clear battle lines and forcing everyone (even if it's just myself) to choose sides.  In the end this strategy never works, and it certainly doesn't for Max.  It doesn't take long until feelings (and bodies) are hurt and the group is scattered again.

It's following this that I believe the pivotal moment in the film occurs.  Max approaches Alexander who's been injured both physically and emotionally in the war.  He's alone, as usual, and feeling desperately sorry for himself.  Max realizes for the first time the trouble he's caused and the impossibility he faces when trying to make everything right himself.  Alexander forces him to stare himself in the face by declaring:

You're not really a king, are you?  You're just a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be king.

Max, of course, realizes and acknowledges that this is true.  To which Alexander heartbreakingly replies, "I don't think there is a king like that [that can make everything right and keep everyone together]."  And this is truth, though an incomplete truth.

I'm a man of faith and that influences everything in my life. I recognize that not all of you share my faith, and therefore, won't see what I'm about to describe.  But the reason that Alexander's resignation was so heartbreaking to me is because I know that there is a King like that, yet I also know well, as I think we all do, the doubt.

In the middle of all of it, though, we (hopefully) eventually come to realize that even without the answers, the first step is admitting that we're not king, or at least not a very good one.  Max does and decides to return home.  None of the wild things really understand why but none take it more personally than Carol.  He basically goes nuts.  Douglas tries to calm him down.  So, Carol rips his arm off and then decides the only way to keep Max around is to eat him.  Max escapes by actually climbing in KW's mouth.

Did you get that?

He escapes being literally consumed by the wild thing that represents anger and aggression by instead being consumed by the wild thing that represents affection and acceptance.

Later, after Carol has cooled off a bit, Max comes to see him.  Carol basically questions why he has to leave and why everything isn't better since he came.  Max's answer results in the following exchange.

Max: Because I'm not a king.

Carol: Well, what are you then?

Max: I'm Max.

Carol: That's not very much, is it?

But part of what Max has realized is that it is, just not the "much" he had thought.

And that's true, though incomplete.

Carol then walks off leaving Max alone.  Max goes to the beach where all of the other wild things are.  He promises to talk well about them when he returns and as he's climbing in his boat to leave, Judith comments, "you're the first king we haven't eaten," to which all the other wild things chime in with agreement.

And that's true.  The wild things inside only consume us when we ceaselessly and uselessly attempt to exert control.  When we give up that illusion, we give up their control as well.

Meanwhile, Carol is off alone but stumbles across a simple message Max has left him: a heart made out of sticks with a "C" in the middle.  Just as Max is setting off Carol comes running down the dunes and straight out into the water.  Max looks back at him and all of the wild things, while they all look after him.  What's left for them to do but to roar their terrible roars?

And this they do.

They roar.

They roar with longing.

They roar with regret.

They roar with expectancy.

They roar with sorrow.

They roar with joy.

They roar with fury.

And they roar with love.

'Cause, you see, that's what it's ultimately about.  Love.  Love of self and love of others, regardless of how wild we all may be.

And this is true though incomplete.

And by this point the final scene is just icing, delicious and sweet and leaving us (or me at least) craving more.

Maybe you think I've read way too much into it, and maybe I did.  But I don't care, because it got me.  Where the Wild Things Are really got me.

Some of the critiques from parents that I've read have centered around the film being too dark, the themes being too adult, Max being too rambunctious and angry, the wild things being too sad and scary and not being inspirational enough.  To those parents I would say that regardless of what their specific issues might be, their children are living in a very wild world and the vast majority don't know how to deal with it if no one will help them.  If nothing else, Where the Wild Things Are illustrates this perfectly and provides all of you with the perfect opportunity to help your children along the way by talking to them not like a kid but a fellow wild thing.

So, if you any of you have made it this far... thanks.  I'm sure I haven't expressed myself as well as I could have.  Maybe we can grab some coffee and just talk about it.

I think that would be nice.

Arrrroooooooooooooooooooo!

WtWTACliff