Where The Wild Things Are has given me emotional indigestion. The movie trailer indicated that “Inside all of us is hope,” but the movie left me feeling the weight of the world on my heart and tear ducts, not just my shoulders. Like midnight Chinese food and the electric headache that drinking a vanilla milkshake too fast can elicit, I felt an unusual distress in every part of me after seeing the film.
“I’m sooo sad!” Was the best I could come up when Dax and I walked out of the theatre equally stunned. We tried to pinpoint what stabbed us in the heart so accurately, but we were at a loss for words (compounded by a complete loss of appetite for post-movie martinis).
The opening scene with socially awkward 9-year-old Max Records sobbing after escaping his crushed igloo (collapsed by his older sister’s jerk-friends)was like swallowing an SOS pad. I had packed an illegal movie picnic for Dax and I as we had both hurried over to the Varsity after work. The gouda with fine herbs that I loved the night before felt like a choking hazard in my clenched throat. The sesame seed sticks were like shards of glass. The Boylan’s root beer set fire to everything else.
I can still see my primary school librarian, Mrs. Kuyvenhoven, in a pilly mauve cardigan and polyester pleated pants with eyes as big as eggs, reading Where The Wild Things Are to us as we sat, fidgeting on the carpeted floor of Mt. Pleasant school library. The moody front cover of the book is more of a standout in my memory than the plot, but the movie trailer and the whimsical similarity to The Neverending Story put it on my coveted must-see-at-the-theater list.
Apparently the ‘monsters’ depicted in Maurice Sendak’s book were based on his Polish immigrant relatives who congregated in his childhood home for weekly dinners. Their choppy English and quirky mannerisms made them very monster-like to his younger self (Which I can relate to. We thought my grandmother was from Mars because she had such green and wormy varicose veins). Not so surprisingly, Sendak’s bibliography lists dozens of illustration credits as he spent his earlier years working as a children’s book artist before finding his niche in the writing world.
Director and screenwriter Spike Jonze, producer Tom Hanks and co-scriptwriter Dave Eggers (What is the What, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) have been sculpting and breathing Where The Wild Things Are for six years. Filmed in Australia, the surreal escape into Max’s troubled headspace is a magnificent success in that it is so disturbing. Maybe it makes me think too much about all the rejected Max’s of the world. How we repeatedly fail to acknowledge those who are craving mere snippets of attention and acceptance.
The on-screen ‘monsters’ are easily recognized as lonely, broken depictions of humans. They are misunderstood and as uncomfortable as pimply teenagers. They want a king who will lead them away their sadness and simultaneously Max finds a place where he is wanted and needed. He finds solace in Carol (James Gandolfini) and discovers his voice and assertiveness as he is challenged by KW, Ira, Douglas and Alexander (the Wild Things). The monsters, despite their behemoth size, fangs, horns and affection for eating children, are as sensitive as an albino’s bare arms in the July sun.
As an outsider, Max is finally able to see and recognize his own family, and how they are no different from the Wild Things. The gloomy forest and vast sand dunes of Max’s domain are forever changed as he infiltrates the Wild Things and learns the dynamics and heartbreak that have internally collapsed his friend, Carol. The movie is like an illumination of Jann Arden’s lyrics to “Everybody’s Broken.” Whether “everybody hates Billy Wolfe ‘cause he doesn’t look the way they do” or Clara Marie who’s eighty-five years old when she’s taken from her home. “To her little white room with a cup and a spoon and the dress that she had on/Nobody came they’ve forgotten her name it’s like she disappeared.”
Everybody is broken and wants to be thought of in that irreplaceable way, and the Wild Things that Max befriends were as familiar to me as they will be to you. It’s like we keep meeting the same people over and over again in our lives. The Painfully Awkward one, the Funny one, the Quiet and Brooding one, the Overcompensating one, the Annoying one, the Hurting one. And what do we learn? Our heartbreaks are the same. Our tears, strife and struggle are all the same. Billy Wolfe, Clara Marie, Carol, Max—we know them by different names, maybe we have even been them.
But I still walked away from the movie with a boomerang in my throat. And this is the finest example of brilliance by a director. When a film can penetrate and disturb us, lingering for days, weeks and months, like a lover’s embrace—it has fulfilled its purpose. Songs often do this to us, but when there is a powerful visual, like the pained expression of Carol when he learns that the sun might be dying in the sky, it sticks and stains us.
Think of the image that is instantly conjured up with the YouTube link for “Christian the Lion” and his reunion with John Rendall and Ace Berg. (In 1969 they bought the lion cub from Harrod’s and the local vicar allowed Christian to exercise on the church grounds. When he became too big for their flat, it was decided that Christian should be reintroduced to Africa.) By now, you are already picturing the lion approaching Rendall and Berg with undeniable recognition on his face–and the footage of Christian bear-hugging the two men in the remarkable hello that follows. This is how Where the Wild Things Are will attach itself to you. Carol running across the dunes towards Max in the boat, whimpering and sobbing, is the Christian the lion reunion all over again.
The lion reunion hits the same susceptible nerves and leaves me with tears racing down my neck all the way to my collarbone. It alarms me a bit that the same footage can make me so blithery and marshmallow-like each and every time. What does it all mean? I guess that we want to be remembered, and needed. Even when we have to let go and leave behind the kingdoms that we have built to find our feet again when it seems like only quicksand surrounds us.
When you see the final (sob-alert) scene of the Wild Things on the beach, you will understand. And maybe you will stop to ask Billy Wolfe or Clara Marie if they’re doing okay. No one should be lonely in this world, and I think it took a few monsters to remind me of that.
Tell me what you think.
Where The Wild Things Are (trailer, soundtrack and other cool things)–http://wherethewildthingsare.warnerbros.com/
The guaranteed-to-make-you-cry lion reunion on The View– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiGKWoJi5qM&feature=fvw