Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are is a children's movie. If I had three tickets and 4 children aged 3, 5, 8 and 12, I would probably take the bookend kids.

TTWTA is a feature length dramatization of a 10 sentence long children's picture book in which a child by the name of Max gets sent to his room after "making mischief" in his wolf costume, only to find his room transformed into a wonderful world where he becomes king of some scary looking Wild Things. In the end of the book he gets lonely and returns home. Most of you have probably read the book, and if you haven't, you missed out.

Little from the book was missing in the movie. It captured with startling candor the feelings of an imaginative child who feels ignored by the world, and the frustrations of trying to constructively interact with that world. At the same time, the film reveled in the joys of romping through the woods, sailing the high seas and making friends with Wild Things.

Most of the story, though, is a morality tale; the cast are the Wild Things and Max himself, Each one is an archetype of some behavior dysfunction, and each one exists so that our hero can observe the consequences of various social behavior. However, most of these dysfunctions aren't fully resolved. Rather, they are merely grappled with, played out long enough that somebody gets hurt but not long enough for the story to lead to real repentance or redemption. This underscores one of the frustrations of childhood - relationships are often just as complex as they are for adults, but you have far fewer tools with which to understand them. Why does that friend want to be alone? Does he not like me? What can I do about it? Starting a dirt clod fight sometimes helps... will it work here?

One of the wonderful things about this story is that each character longs deeply for community, for real and total co-acceptance. They yearn to be one of the gang, to be loved, to fall asleep in a giant pile of fur and feathers. Recognizing their own dysfunction, they wait for a true king, one who will save the world and fix the brokenness. Carol, the Wild Thing whose personality most closely mirrors Max's own, has a real child-like mix of raw hope and a raw fear, a hope that lets him embrace Max as a king, and a fear that throws him into rage as that dream crumbles. If this were a story that had supported that hope and quenched that fear, it would be a great children's story. But its not.

In fact, Carol's hope is the only one that can be described as child-like. For most, the yearning for community is buried in layers of despair or, worse yet, cynicism. And this, unfortunately, is the viewpoint that is supported in the end. While there are flickers of forgiveness and love between individuals, there is no grand redemption, no salvation. WTWTA is, at its core, an atheistic movie. Max does not represent merely an unworthy, phony, or incapable king. He represents a fairy tale, a false hope. "There is no such thing as a king," Carol is told. No king and no salvation, no family head or higher good. Any hope of community and family is left a leaderless mess.

Did I enjoy the movie? Absolutely. If you want to explore the mind of children dealing with loneliness, social frustration and anger, you should see this movie too. But unless you want to introduce your kids to a morality that is, at best, functionalist ethics set in a dysfunctional world, hire a sitter. (Or better yet, take your kids and talk with them afterwards!)


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