Movie Mom

Movie Mom

Where the Wild Things Are

posted by Nell Minow

Maurice Sendak’s spare, poetic, and deeply wise book has been lovingly unfolded into a movie about the child who lives in all of us, brave and fearful, generous and needy, angry and peaceful, confident and insecure, adventuresome and very glad to come home. The movie may challenge children who are used to bright, shiny colors and having everything explained to them but if they allow it, Max and his story will bloom inside them as it will for anyone open to its profound pleasures.

The book’s opening line is as well-remembered as “Call me Ishmael” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him ‘WILD THING.'” Those who wondered what prompted Max’s mischief will accompany him as he experiences the jubilation of creating his own cozy space, a snowball-stocked igloo, and as he joyously takes on his sister’s friends in a snowball fight, only to be inconsolably crushed when they carelessly smash his icy lair and then leave without him.


There has never been a more evocative portrayal on film of the purity, the intensity, the transcendence of childhood emotions. The hallmark of maturity is the way we temper our feelings; it is not a compliment when we call someone “childish” for not being able to do so. Our experiences — and our parents — teach us that life is complex, that sorrow and joy are always mixed, and that we can find the patience to respond to frustration without breaking anything. But one reason that we mis-remember childhood as idyllic is the longing for the ferocity of childhood pleasures. Jonze and his Max (Max Records) bring us straight into the immediacy and open-heartedness of a child’s emotions.


We know we are in a child’s world even before the movie begins, with scrawled-on opening credits and then a breathtaking, child’s eye opening bursting with sensation, all the feelings rushing together. The film brilliantly evokes the feeling of childhood with the same freshness and intimacy director Spike Jonze showed in the influential videos he made when he was barely out of his teens. Max’s mother is beautifully played by Catherine Keener who makes clear to us, if not to Max, her devotion and sensitivity in the midst of concerns about work and a budding romance. His incoherent fury at her being distracted, including a kiss from a date who seems to think he has the right to tell Max how to behave almost hurtles him from the house, into the night, where he runs and runs, and then to a boat, where he sails and sails, until he comes to the land of the Wild Things.


They begin to attack him, but Max tames them with his bravado and imagination and he becomes the king, promising to do away with loneliness and make everyone happy. The book’s brief story blooms here as Max interacts with the Wild Things (voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, and Chris Cooper). Each of them represents or reflects Max’s emotions or experiences. They love sleeping in a big pile and are thrilled with Max’s plans for a fort. But Max learns how difficult it is to be responsible for the happiness of others, and before long, like other children in stories who have traveled to lands filled with magic and wonder, he longs for home.

The movie’s look is steeped in the natural world, with forests and beaches, and intricate Waldorf-school-style constructions that evoke a sense of wonder. The screenplay by Dave Eggers and Jonze locates the heart of Sendak’s story. They have not turned it into a movie; they have made their own movie as a tribute to Sendak, to childhood, to parenthood, to the Wild Things we all are at times, and to the home that waits for us when those times are over.

  • Dustin Putman

    I can’t get enough of this trailer! The editing, the music (“Wake Up” by Arcade Fire), the visuals…simply stunning on every level.

  • Mary Keeley

    WOW! Gotta see this! This wonderful book was our youngest son’s favorite when he was little. In fact, he took his very own copy with him when he went away to college! Forgot his alarm clock, but had this book! (By the way, he’s now the principal of a local high school and father of his own two, Sam and Mia.) I sent him the trailer. Thanks so much, Nell. And, if you can find it, there is a wonderful documentary video about Maurice Sendak. What a wonderful man. We purchased the documentary when I was in charge of Audio Visual at the County Library. He has terrific stories about his own childhood and why he wrote for children. Funniest one: he lived next to Angelo, his buddy in Brooklyn. Angelo was Italian, his family had lots of kids, Sendak was Jewish, his family had lots of kids. He said Angelo’s mother wore black, his mother wore black, Angelo’s mother was always singing and laughing,cooking;Maurice’s mother was always crying, moaning, cooking. Sendak said he grew up thinking Italians were happy Jews! Great guy–great books!

  • StormyinGA

    I remember this book so clearly from my children’s childhood library. I do want to see it, even though they are now grown and one has children of her own. I know they remember it, and it would be great to see the video version of this story. I am really, really excited and can’t wait to see it.

  • Nell Minow

    Thank you StormyinGA! I agree and blessings to you and your family, too.

  • p

    This movie did no justice to a cherished children’s classic. All of the characters needed Prozac and therapy. Costumes were great! Story line not expanded but made very very depressing.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks for the comment, P — I don’t think you will like the movie if what you were hoping for was an expanded version of the book, but if you think of it as having each of the Wild Things represent an element of Max’s life or the issues he was dealing with rather than being intended as fully-realized characters of their own, perhaps it will make more sense to you and seem less depressing. I thought it was a very astute and moving portrayal of some of the anxieties and conflicts of growing up.

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