Jean Paul Sartre gave us the line, “Hell is other people.” For Max (Max Records) in Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic “Where the Wild Things Are,” that is true.
Max is a child of divorce. Mom (Catherine Keener) and Dad are no longer together, and that’s hard for a 9-year-old. As the movie opens, Max plays in the snow and creates an igloo, where he hides his snowballs. When his teenage sister, Claire (Pepita Emmerichs), exits the house with a group of friends, Max attacks them with the snowballs. The teenage boys retaliate harshly. They chase Max to the igloo and then jump on it, crashing down on his head.
Max emerges, crying. In anger, he goes into Claire’s room and rips, stomps and tears apart her sacred place. When Mom comes home, he tearfully says that Claire’s friends hurt him and she did nothing to help.
Being Max and 9 is not fun. Childhood, as magical and wonderful as we re-imagine as adults, is hard, especially when people who make promises don’t keep them.
Max comes down from his room and finds Mom entertaining a man (Mark Ruffalo). Hurt at this seeming betrayal, Max takes action. When Mom says that dinner will be in a little while, Max climbs up on the kitchen island and bellows, “Feed me, woman!” A tussle with Mom ensues and Max bites Mom on the shoulder. In anger, he runs from the house into the night.
After outrunning Mom, Max finds a pier and a boat. He gets in and sails away from Mom, Claire, home and trouble. He arrives on an island where huge creatures roam. The creatures look nothing like humans, but they are all too human.
Carol (James Gandolfini) is manic depressive. Douglas (Chris Cooper) is his friend, a voice of attempted reason to Carol’s rants and raves. Ira (Forest Whitaker) and Judith (Catherine O’Hara) are the couple, with Judith being the sharp edge of the blade and Ira being the duller side. Alexander (Paul Dano) is one just trying to fit in but is always marginalized. K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) is loved by Carol, but she finds it hard to be with him because of his emotional swings.
When Max arrives, he convinces them that he is a king and has fought and defeated Vikings. The Wild Things declare Max king, and Max makes his first decree: “Let the wild rumpus start!”
All of this is nice and fun, but the troubles Max had at home seem to have followed him to where the Wild Things are.
Spike Jonze directs a movie about the foibles of family. We see a child’s view of what goes on behind closed doors. There is nothing here that one could label as bad; it simply is what it is. Mom and Dad cannot live together, and Max lives with the pieces left over. And like most leftovers, these aren’t good.
What we see in the Wild Things are the personalities of others in Max’s life. Carol is Dad, K.W. is Mom and Judith is Claire. Alexander is Max, smart and aware, but wounded and marginalized by the dynamics of the group. Alexander searches for a voice to stand out, but generally stays in the shadows, alone.
I liked this movie, but it will not be everyone’s favorite. I like the story’s honesty. Max is not a bratty kid who acts out to gain attention; he is just a child trying to find his way in a world he never knew. He longs for what should be, but is stuck living with what is. Some may not like this approach, but I did.
Is it a classic? Time will tell. It owes much to other classics, notably “The Wizard of Oz.” When that movie premiered, it wasn’t an instant classic; it developed its reputation only after repeated TV broadcasts.
Will this movie need that? I don’t know. But it struck me viscerally – a sign of art.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language.
Director: Spike Jonze
Writers: Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, based on the book by Maurice Sendak
Cast: Max Records: Max; Pepita Emmerichs: Claire; Catherine Keener: Mom; Mark Ruffalo: Boyfriend; James Gandolfini: Carol; Chris Cooper: Douglas; Forest Whitaker: Ira; Catherine O’Hara: Judith; Lauren Ambrose: K.W.; Paul Dano: Alexander.
The movie’s official Web site is here.