What 2009's Where the Wild Things Are can teach us about media for children
When people talk about Spike Jonze, what do they normally talk about? They talk about films such as Her, and Being John Malkovich. People talk about his fantastic music videos, and the way he innovated the medium in the 1990s and 2000s. Where the Wild Things Are is often ignored, and acknowledged as merely a footnote in Jonze’s filmography. A long-gestating project, Where the Wild Things Are released at the tail-end of 2009 to mostly-positive reviews, while being a box office disappointment for Warner Bros. What became the narrative around the film, however, was its dark tone and questionable suitability for children.
Reviews from the New Yorker and Salon.com criticized the tone of the film, and whether this adaptation of a children’s book would even be something children would want to watch. David Denby wrote “I have a vision of eight-year-olds leaving the movie in bewilderment. Why are the creatures so unhappy?”
According to Jonze himself, Where the Wild Things Are is a film meant to be “about childhood”, rather than be a movie for children. I wonder about the value of such mutual exclusivity. Can a movie be about childhood, while also being for children?
Throughout the film, Max, our protagonist, is dealing with a lot. He’s a lonely kid without friends, building an igloo alone, and imagining others to play with. His sister doesn’t spend time with him, and the interactions they do share in the film are destructive and vengeful, shown through the crushing of Max’s igloo, and Max’s subsequent rampage through his sister’s room. His parents have separated, and his Mother has a new boyfriend. Coupled with the stress surrounding her job, the film provides just enough context for us to know that Max is lonely, and that he’s feeling abandoned. Whether he realizes it or not, he’s grieving the loss of his family structure, the loneliness he feels, and any sense of connection with the figures in his life. He doesn’t feel understood.
It’s important to note that Max does lash out, and he does act out in anger and jealousy. He’s not a perfect child, and he is berated by his Mother. When he hurts her, Max is scared and upset and regretful, and so he runs off to be alone. He seems to process everything on his own.
Now, it is a safe approach to take with the film to try and align each of the Wild Things with different figures in Max’s life. While that is an admirable approach to take, I don’t think it’s absolutely vital to understanding the film, and Max, as a whole. The Wild Things provide an outlet for Max, and the audience, to process their traumas and feelings in a way that, while ultimately internal, makes sense to them. Children do this all the time. When I was a kid, I processed everything on my own by acting out scenarios in my head. I still do this at twenty-one. The amount of times I’ve processed my emotions thinking out scenarios in my head while riding the subway, or walking streets at night is incalculable.
Yes, the Wild Things are sad, and they’re angry, and they’re sometimes scary. The reality is that, for many children, these are emotions they express in such a heightened way, because they are often new experiences. Carol is afraid of losing his friend, Alexander feels unheard and lonely, and every other Wild Thing is dealing with something that Max connects with. This is how he copes with his feelings.
There is a sentiment in children’s media, and Western culture as a whole, that we must always strive to be happy. That to be sad, or lonely, and any of these emotions with negative connotations is a detour on the path towards happiness. Yes, we should want to be happy, but through this mindset we are taught from a young age that we shouldn’t be sad, or angry, and that we must focus on being happy. As a result of this culture surrounding sadness, children’s films often perpetuate the need for a happy ending, moralizing positivity as the be-all, end-all. The sadness is often a low-point in the story for the characters, only for them to bounce back at the end.
Where the Wild Things Are, instead of showing a lighthearted romp where Max does a complete 180 and stops being sad, and lonely, and becomes a kid who never acts out and is always polite, asks a simple question: What if children were allowed to take their time to process their feelings, and not need to be happy to be valid? Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out is but one example of a film made for children that makes the emotional experience of its characters more complicated than a need to be happy all the time.
In an early sequence, Max sits in his classroom as his science teacher explains how, someday, the sun will extinguish and die, and that everything in the solar system will die including life on Earth. It makes me wonder: if we trust children to learn about mortality from a scientific perspective, why do we not trust them to understand a film that reflects their own feelings?
There is space for children’s media that is dark, and introspective, while also being a positive experience. Not every film made for children needs to end with a musical number, or a moral slammed into the faces of audiences.
Where the Wild Things Are serves as a reminder that children’s media need not be happy to be valid. Films made for children can be existential, and they can be dark. Childhood is messy, and confusing, and every part of it is as important as the happy memories. It’s a film that makes Max out to be more than just a bratty kid, but a fully-realized person with emotional trauma that he needs to process. Max is as valid a person as any one of us, and I’m thankful for a film like Where the Wild Things Are.