I glazed over some of the reviews before going to this movie and many described it as “pseudo philosophical”. I can certainly see where they are coming from but I don’t necessarily agree with tagging anything as “pseudo philosophical”. There are certainly many more movies that one can describe as more philosophical, or more complicated, than Where the Wild Things Are. However, this is a movie that can be appreciated by both a child and an adult.
So here is your official spoiler warning.
Read on if you wish.
The movie started with a boy chasing a dog while dressed in a wolf suit, just absolutely raising hell. The first thing I think is, “What a freakin’ brat!”, but then I thought “Wait, was I that bad at his age?”. The movie continues on and this same boy, Max, is playing in a snow fort, obviously amassing an arsenal of snowballs to pelt someone with. That someone turns out to be a group of someones, his sister and a pack of teenagers. Max and the pack engage in a friendly snowball fight with the end result of Max’s snow fort being utterly demolished. Of course, Max is absolutely crushed. He looks to his sister for comfort who promptly looks away. Max’s sorrow is replaced by anger and he proceeds to destroying his sister’s room, including a keepsake highschool wooden love thing that her boyfriend gave her.
Max’s mom is introduced shortly afterward. She is single and I assume Max’s dad passed away or they are divorced. I am guessing he passed away but my mind was drifting in and out during this movie so I missed a few details. Either way, she has a boyfriend and they kiss and whisper sweet-nothings to each other. Max is the witness to one of these exchanges which arguably sets him into a fit of unruliness (Oedipus complex?). Next comes my wife and I’s favorite line from the movie as Max follows his mom into the kitchen and stands up on the counter, shouting “Feed me, woman!”. His mom scolds him which further antagonizes his mood ultimately ending with him biting his mom on the shoulder and running out the door into the night (in his wolf suit).
Max runs into a wooded area and ends up going into a deep imaginative bout where he finds himself on an island full of monsters. The monsters are busying themselves arguing between each other and destroying what looks like big wooden circles but ended up being their homes. Max confronts the monsters and befriends them by saying he was a great king and he has the power to prevent sadness (a sadness shield, haha). The monsters take kindly to Max and decide not to eat him. They dub him King.
And so the stage is set for Max and the monsters. Let the wild rumpus start! The first thing they do is celebrate the dubbing of a new King and go on a complete rampage, destroying and uprooting trees and whatever else is in their way. They end the night with an enormous dog pile and fall asleep together. This is probably the point in which I started reflecting hard on my childhood. I had completely forgotten about dog piles. I guess it goes to say how long its been since I’ve interacted with children.
Max and the monsters continue on with doing things only a child would do and the King begins to develop relationships with the monsters. At one point Carol takes Max along a walk throughout the island and they find themselves in a desert. Carol describes the desert as “what things are turning into”, which interestingly enough literally happens later in the movie when Carol, in a fit of rage, rips the arm off of the chicken guy, or the cockatiel guy according to my wife. The chicken’s empty arm socket then begins spewing sand. Ah, the symbolism.
Everything is initially wonderful and all the monsters seem to be getting along. The honeymoon lasts for about a day. The thing with children is they do things without knowing the consequences of their actions and that becomes very evident in this movie. They engage in dirt clod fights and build a fort, be it a pretty impressive one, that “will cut the brains out of anyone we don’t want here”. Many of their activities, well all of them, end in someone getting hurt, be it physically or emotionally, the ultimate climax occurring when Carol turns on Max and chases him (so Carol is Max’s personal demon) into the woods threatening to eat him. Certainly a very tragic experience for Max, though necessary for him to come to terms with his behavior and conquer his inner demons.
There’s a basic synopsis of the movie and I am quickly realizing how long this post is getting. I’ve decided to cut it short, especially since the average attention span these days is a three minute YouTube video. There are certainly many more things I could of hit on, including Carol and KW’s relationship and the point where Max, the King, is told that he should never talk back to any of the monsters. He is sharply reminded that it is his role, as the king, not to bicker and basically, not to be a child.
The overall theme of the movie as I saw it was that we quickly forget what it means to be a child. I, for one, remember a time without responsibility and think how amazing it was. However, as we grow older we tend to forget the pain that was associated with growing up. Certainly Max and the monsters portray this as they learn the consequences of their actions. It really isn’t ok to throw dirt clods at each other, especially when it hurts someone. So that’s the overall theme, but many more questions can be asked.
The monsters respresent all the different character facets of Max's personality, with Carol being the strongest and most familiar. The movie is a beautiful representation of the great struggle of growing up and draws a line between the differences of a child and an adult. As we grow older we become more self-reflective and gain the ability to recogize the traits of our personality, as least some of us do. By recognizing these traits, or character facets, we can learn to control them and nurish the good traits of our personality.
Another interesting thing is the role Max’s father plays. He wasn’t there, but we see he was involved in Max’s life at some point as Max received a globe from him as a gift with the inscription, “Max, this world is all yours.” Well, something along those lines if my memory is serving me correctly. I had assumed earlier that his father either passed away or they went through a divorce, but either way, Max has lost his father and his mother lost her other half. So in the beginning of Max’s life he had a father and his mother had another counterpart that helped raise Max and guide him through life. Now that the counterpart is gone, Max has lost his father and his mother has lost a person who helped guide Max and his emotions as he is growing up. He has gone from two people sharing the role of teaching him how to control his demons to one person, which is his mom who is busy with work and busy trying to establish another relationship. So Max has issues. These issues then can arguably be due to the loss of his father in his life.
We learn things conditionally. What does it mean when we call something red? As a scientist I would describe red as a certain wavelength that our eyeballs absorb and translate into signals which our brain then interprets. That is something I have learned over the course of my lifetime by attending science courses. As a child, how do I learn what makes red, red? If I were to teach a child what red means, I would fail if I just showed them a bunch of red pens. The child would associate pens with the color red. Instead, I would show the child many different objects that are red, including a balloon, and a pen, and a barn, and a car. This sets conditions in the child’s mind that all these objects have something in common, and that something is what we call red. So throughout life and as we are growing up, we learn things conditionally. I would stretch this even farther to say that we learn to control our behavior conditionally with the help of our family and when our family is broken, our behavior is turned loose without direction. So is the woe of Max’s life and so he must learn on his own, through his imaginative bout or epiphany, that every action has its consequence.
It seems that Max and the monsters treat uncertainty with destruction. The first example being when Max felt betrayed by his sister. His first initial reaction was anger and the result of that anger was destruction, the victim being his sister’s mushy love wooden thing. This behavior is also very evident in Max’s monster counterpart, Carol, who destroys things when he is angry. Carol is certainly Max’s most familiar demon. The other monsters are not as destructive, at least not as destructive as Carol(Carol was destroying their own homes). For example, there was a quiet, scary looking monster, with gray fur who flopped over when he was being pelted with dirt clods. He also never said anything during the entire movie (Max's quiet strength). All the monsters had their own way of dealing with uncertainty and this one in particular did nothing. So this mixture of monsters were Max’s demons, the demons we learn to control as we grow up (Are we born inherently evil?). As an evolutionary biologist (which I most certainly am not), how would I describe the difference between an animal and a human in this context? Certainly an animal indulges in carnal instinct and acts in a basic behavioral way, that behavior strongly influenced by predator versus prey. A human, as I understand, is an animal, but what makes us different is our ability to control our basic animal instincts, or our demons. The human mind has evolved conditionally to see the consequences of its own actions and the result of following our basic instinct. To Max and the monsters, this result was always negative. So is the ability to control this behavior what makes us human?
As I stated earlier, some described Where the Wild Things Are as a ‘pseudo philosophical’ movie and again I contend that nothing is ‘pseudo philosophical’ though I agree that it isn’t as deep as other movies. If I had to relate it to a classic novel, I'd say its a watered down version of The Catcher in the Rye. I give it a lot of credit however that it can reach a very broad audience and adapting this film from the original picture book was a feat in itself. It was visually stunning and had some good quality humor and if you’re wondering what the chicken did about his arm, he replaced it with a stick.