Can I just say that I absolutely love this movie? Maybe it’s the nostalgia factor, but I think it’s much more than that.
It gets a lot of mixed reviews, I know. Some people like it, others hate it, but most people I know say they really want to like it but they just can’t because it feels like something’s missing. And I have to agree to an extent. Watching it over again, it does leave me feeling like the film is incomplete in a way I can’t quite explain. But I’m going to try to figure it out anyways.
What stands out to me the most is, in trying to summarize the movie, it turns out pretty bizarre. “A young boy named Max struggles with the change that’s forced upon him as he matures, so he runs away to an imaginary land only to find things aren’t perfect there either. The creatures there crown him king in hopes he’ll solve their problems.” It’s pretty weird, no? If the book never existed and you heard about a movie like that, I wonder if you’d even consider going to see it. I’ll wager not.
There’s something called “suspension of disbelief” that film-goers subconsciously agree to when they watch a movie. It’s what happens when we decide that Brad Pitt is Benjamen Button, or that the world is being attacked by aliens, or the Na’vi’s way of life is really in danger — we buy into the world that’s put on screen in front of us. In other words, it’s how movies become believable to our minds, if only for an hour and a half. Comedies and action flicks don’t necessarily require the SoD to be enjoyable since their focus is more on getting laughs and spectacular set pieces. To dramas, however, it’s absolutely essential that we buy into the on-screen universe. And I think it’s something Where the Wild Things Are completely overlooks.
We’re pretty much forced to assume that the epic adventure Max goes through all takes place in his mind; he runs away from home into the woods and instantly finds a life-sized version of his toy boat and sets sail across an ocean. But what exactly is happening to the real Max? Is he just having an elaborate day dream? Is he passed out? Is he playing make-believe in the forest? We don’t know. We’re never explicitly told so we have to make our own assumptions, which takes us “out” of the movie because we’re trying to figure out how what’s going on is going on.
This fact is emphasized by the fact that on the island, Max repeatedly finds himself in real danger, being threatened to be eaten, crushed, and disemboweled. But if it’s all in his imagination, is he really in danger at all? If he’s eaten, crushed, or disemboweled, does he really die or simply wake up? Furthermore, why does he never seem to need to eat yet he still sleeps? How can a little boy trek across a vast desert in his imagination but not form any kind of powers he says he has? Our adult minds can’t seem to wrap around these conundrums. We simply can’t suspend our disbelief. And therein lies the genius of it.
Because neither can Max. He’s run away from home, away from his problems, and away from responsibility for his actions; he goes somewhere deep in his own imagination, an island far from everything he knows, and what does he find? Monsters with emotional issues (representing his own). The monsters threaten to destroy his ideal world in multiple ways, whether it’s physically hurting him, being at odds with one another, or questioning his powers and kingship. He does everything he can to tame them and find order, to build a new home where everything is how he wants it to be. But in the end he’s forced to confront them one by one; he has to come to terms with reality and his own maturity, eventually choosing to leave his imaginary world behind for the real one.
So in essence, we’re almost simultaneously questioning the believability of the magical world with Max. As he doubts the world he’s thrown himself into, so do we. And I think it’s brilliant. I think it makes an example out of our “grown up” movie expectations.
Remember when you were a kid and were genuinely scared of a certain horror movie that, in retrospect, was completely stupid and not even remotely feasible? That’s because you didn’t know any better. Neither did I. How was I supposed to know Michael Myers couldn’t magically appear around every corner I turned despite his general sluggishness? Or that he had absolutely no reason to come after me? There was a time when things didn’t have to make sense to be real to us. But somewhere along the line we got a wake up call telling us there was an order to the world beyond our control. Mine was when I put a few dollars on the counter at the store for a toy I wanted and caught my mom handing the cashier the rest of the money. That was when I started coming to grips with the idea of value. Before that moment, life was so much simpler.
I have this theory — in life we’re all chasing that feeling we had when we were kids: the blissful ignorance of not having to worry about “real world” adult concerns. Most people want to be rich not necessarily to buy all the expensive things but so money will cease to be an issue; so they can attain their wildest (albeit much less extravagant) dreams in real life. Books and movies are much more attainable way to escape our reality; running off to someone else’s world makes us forget about our own.
And that’s what makes Where the Wild Things Are a somewhat difficult pill to swallow. It isn’t simply escapism. It dangles that possibility in front of us like a mirage in the desert and still forces us to question not only the realities of the movie but the reasons why we can’t seem to accept them. None of the adults in my theater laughed when Carol tore Douglas’ arm off, but the children did. We were horrified until we realized he wasn’t hurt at all, that he was more upset about losing his “favorite arm” than being in any kind of excruciating pain. It really is a kid’s movie that takes jabs at adults for our expectations and challenges us to rethink them. It’s a coming of age story, a social commentary, and a self-aware cinematic experiment all lumped in a big pile. And I love it.
The number one reason I think I was able to enjoy it more than others is because going in, I didn’t know what to expect and therefore had no expectations. I resolved to watch the re-imagining of a favorite childhood story without a critical eye, to let myself be a kid and have fun with the characters in the story. And I did. I thoroughly enjoyed everything that happened without wondering for a second about the things that didn’t, the elements that weren’t there.
And sometimes that’s what it takes to really enjoy a film (or life, for that matter): focus on where you are, not where you aren’t.