I try to avoid getting all autobiographical in my posts, but when discussing Where the Wild Things Are I really can’t avoid it. When I was around fourteen years old I was certain I wanted to become a filmmaker (that certainty has since changed), and my childhood is basically the reason for this. Like many children, I lived largely in my own head, preoccupying myself with the peculiar adventures and creatures of my imagination that manifested an immediate reality that seemed to make so much more sense and feel far more profoundly real than gazing onto my playroom through the objective eyes of adulthood. With the accompaniment of toys, costumes, and the occasional friend, the power of youthful imagination enabled an improvised, lucid creation of characters and narratives that could seem to go on forever. This practice, of course, is better known as playing, but it often felt more like storytelling.
Filmmaking in many ways seems like a natural extension of storytelling during playtime. As a child you use the development of characters and narratives to visualize and act out specific scenarios appealing to you. Filmmaking is this same practice, or at least this same vague idea, applied with time, deliberation, structure, and knowledge. Some of cinema’s most famous filmmakers have cited childhood as an inspiration for their eventual careers. Spielberg, who made amateur films as a kid and often uses childhood as a major theme in his films, has repeatedly stated in so many words that his career is an attempt to recapture the imagination of childhood, or at least make good on that imaginative potential.
Manifesting the unlimited imaginative potential of childhood is, of course, simply one of many ways to utilize the moving image, but the head-in-the-clouds ideal of cinema as an object that has the ability to bring dreams to life draws to mind the boundless directions the creative mind particular to childhood can reach. As a kid I had images and stories in my head, and later in life filmmaking seemed to be a way that could make those images real. Of course, it’s never that easy. Filmmaking is bound by restraints that can often limit creativity as much as it has the potential to enliven it. The boundaries of budget, time, collaboration, work hours, practicality, responsibility, and rationality don’t exactly preserve the spontaneous creative urge of youth. Perhaps the essential difference is the development of critical thinking in adulthood. Even when indulging in creative ventures, we adults question the intent and execution of our projects of imagination with skepticism and criticism, and even the most abstract and spontaneous forms of art are intent with meaning. This, of course, is a necessary practice that makes for a better artist, but it is distinctly different from the comparatively lucid, spontaneous, uncritical, and often purely emotion-driven “works of art” made throughout childhood. So attempting a film career to manifest the imagination of childhood is something of a contradiction and an impossibility, as cinema as a technical achievement involves the necessary critical capabilities of adulthood with the fueling creativity of childhood that grownup modes of thinking naturally inhibit.
It is in this context that Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s infamous children’s book achieves something truly unique, even remarkable. This is the first film in quite some time that shows how telling a story from the logical perspective of a child is not the same thing as telling a dumb story. Jonze here outlines, from the motives and actions of the characters to the larger structural perspective of the film itself, the emotional logic of childhood. The film is structured episodically—there is no specific goal or achievement outlined for the characters, rather the film is strung together with episodes of events naturally tied to instances of conflict. This is exactly the structure of childhood play, moving from one preoccupation to the next at the pace of a young attention span; here games abruptly end, and massive projects are abandoned in favor of arising conflicts or newly inspired ventures. Where the Wild Things Are presents a world that needs little explanation—from the nature of Max’s real ties to that world to details in the arrangement of the wild things’ society—for through child’s eyes the unexplained and improvised act is the one that most naturally makes sense. Childhood logic here is never illogical, and to act as a child is not the same thing as being childish.
Jonze also thankfully captures a child’s perspective without submitting to the sentimental trappings of idealizing childhood. From the outset, childhood is never presented in this film as innocent, blissful, or enviable. While childhood has potential for great joy, it has equal potential for loneliness and sorrow. The nature of play as presented in the film—especially in the war of the mud clots—involves some heavy emotional bruises and an all-too-familiar capacity for cruelty. Childhood can be a relentless and discouraging place, and (as they are, depending on interpretation, objects of Max’s imagination) the wild things act and interact with the same emotional logic of a child Max’s age, equally as prone to spontaneous bursts of positive energy as they are to overwhelming frustration with no outlet. That they are larger than life, intimidating characters with an equal capacity for compassion and cruelty makes all the more apparent the potential constructive and destructive behavior of childhood and the consequences therein (just as there are repercussions for Max biting his mother, Carol’s violent behavior amongst his brethren has sustaining negative effects). The physical breadth of the wild things accompanied with their childlike behavior reminds us that as a kid, nothing seems innocent, pure, or inconsequential. We can get weary and hurt by the world long before we even have the cognitive capability to attempt understanding it. The wild things embody (quite literally) writ large all that is embroiled inside Max’s tiny stature.
Jonze here simply achieves something I’ve never seen before. He manages to capture the spontaneous lack of logic in childhood within an art form that, by contrast, requires a careful, deliberate process of logic every tiny step of the way (especially with a movie of this scale). It’s difficult to encapsulate exactly what Jonze here has achieved, as he seems to have tapped into something essential, something beyond cognition, something the critical capabilities of adulthood prevent me from fully coming to terms with. If anything, it was these critical adult attributes (as both movie critic and grownup) that prevented me from enjoying the film even more than I did. While many parts of this movie had me emotionally enraptured, I could never quite reach where my emotions seemed to be headed, constantly being pulled away from an emotional apex (and WTWTA is a film far more rooted in emotion than, say, rationality (which is not to be confused with plausibility)). It felt like the adult in me kept getting in the way. Never have I envied more the movie-viewing eyes of my single-digit self.