October 31, 2009
A Journey into the Human-Child Psyche

"There's a really good lesson in there," I told my son Dominic after seeing the movie. "But I need to think about it."

He quietly nodded and said "yeah," as if to agree or just  appease his always thinking dad. (Silence can be difficult to judge in people. In my case, I usually think a lot more than I talk, but few words should never be mistaken for nothing going-on upstairs...thank goodness for writing or my head would probably explode.)

Where The Wild Things Are begins with Max, a spirited young boy with adventure on the mind and a mischievous streak as wide as an ear-to-ear grin. He could be any boy really, and perhaps any girl too, but I'll stick with the gender I know better.

Max comes from a broken home. He has a mother who loves him very much...and a sister too, whom Max loves and admires very much. No father, both woman are Max's sole protectors and bastions of stability. And therein lies a clue to Max's troubles.

His sister is getting older, hanging-out more with friends and less with family. Max is feeling the pain of her desertion. Not able to see the bigger dynamic...that this is all a part of growing-up...Max takes his sister's separation as rejection, treachery even. To make things doubly worse, Max's mom has a new boyfriend. Bottom line, Max's already incomplete family...his world really...is falling apart.

So he lashes out...his young mind unable to comprehend what's going on...lacking words to express and process...the little wolf growls and goes on a rampage...attacking everything around him...hurting those he loves the most...those who most love him.
Where The Wild Things Are
"The trailer looks depressing...at least the music sounds that way," says Dominic before we see the movie...the first time.

But the harshest critic or worst review, or even my most beloved son can't keep me from this one. As a boy Where The Wild Things Are was my favorite children's story. No doubt it penetrated deeply into my own psyche. I was entranced with the images...perhaps that is what said so much in a book of so few words.

Potent images...the stuff of dreams! It took a full night's sleep for the deeper meaning of this movie to hit me.

Delving into the primal (wild) mind...crossing the rough seas of the subconscious to get there...facing and dealing with the many facets of the animal-child-self and beyond...coming out a better person, more mature, with greater understanding. If ever there was a Jungian study in a children's story...and a hero's journey of the Joseph Campbell kind...this is it!

How much should I say without giving it away or coloring the whole thing with my own interpretation? I'll just say...especially to the critic who quickly dismisses this movie... listen carefully. Take a good look at the various characters in Max's wild, subconscious-jungle mind.

What archetype does each character represent for Max? Each character makes a very poignant statement and displays certain universal human/child/wild animal characteristics. What particular character sticks out most in your mind?

Sure the soundtrack might sound depressing, but what is it saying? Does it really matter what the words are? It's haunting, alluring, enchanting...and of course it sounds dark...we are entering the subsonscious here...the innermost part of the animal mind...a mystery that is still, despite all our science, about as well understood as the Infinite.

What might this story tell us about violence and innocence...fear and ignorance, change and impermanence, the challenges of parenting and relationship dynamics...being picked-on or left out...the hurt little "kid" no one ever listens to...or the angry child with an attitude, who threatens to eat you... and you'll allow it too, if you're any kind of good king...because when I'm upset, it's your job to not get upset back (wild thing Judith said something like that)?

What parallels can one draw between Max's outer and inner worlds? I see forts, injured arms and owls.  What is the relationship of Carol to Max? And, on the filmmaking side, I'm curious how the special effects impacted the audience...how the old school puppet mastery of Jim Henson's Creature Shop used in this film compares with the trend of CGI.

One of the most memorable parts of the book, where Max's room slowly transforms into a jungle, is noticeably missing from this movie. But I think that's ok. The thoughtful collaboration between the book's author-illustrator Maurice Sendak and director Spike Jonze worked exceptionally well in interpreting the book's deeper meaning and expanding its simple storyline. Perhaps it's symbolic that some part of the book remains untouched, even untouchable...by the very nature of its wildness, there remains an ineffable mystery beyond interpretation and analysis.

Tantrums and kings...expectations of others...expectations of self...growing-up and getting along...Spike Jonze and crew have created a powerful brew in this movie...a perennial mythology that will give us students of stories and film and mind and life a lot to think about for a long time to come.

Finally, the character that sticks out most in my mind? The silent and seemingly fearsome/detached Bull. His only line, delivered to Max at the end of the movie---almost timidly, yet with his distinctive human feet planted solidly on the ground---is perhaps after all my underlying reason for writing this piece.