The Collegian
Monday, December 05, 2022

Cinema in Retrospect: ‘Where the Wild Things are’

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

In his 2009 film adaptation of the 1963 children’s book,Where the Wild Things Are," Spike Jonze nests within the original’s aesthetics and themes. It is an aching exploration of the seemingly impossible, which is the ability to withstand childhood within a world of adults and disinterested parties. 

The film opens in the hostile real world, following the young male protagonist, Max, as he repeatedly meets frustrating roadblocks to his felicity and validation;  his mother spends her time dating men or being eaten away by the demands of her work. At the same time, his older sister actively estranges herself to play with her older friends or gossip through the prying ear of the landline. After his anger and helplessness reach their peak, Max runs away from home, eventually finding a moored boat past the tree line and sailing off into an unknown, violent sea. When he hits land, it is an island inhabited by the film’s mysterious and eponymous “wild things.”

One of the fundamental themes in the film version is that childhood and the art of losing are inseparable ideas. While the movie initially frames loss in an archetypically negative and destructive light — as an analog to violence and exclusion — the advent of the film’s central framing device, Max’s imaginary island getaway, slowly shifts the portrayal of loss into a healthy and ultimately loving and necessary principle. 

Thematically, the island serves as much as a shift in narrative and aesthetics as it does a visualization of Max’s process of coping with and making sense of his perceived duress. The land is as fantastical and improbable as it is human and personal — and perhaps its disturbing atmosphere comes from its monstrous apparitions as much as the frightening realities they threaten to represent. More importantly, Max occupies a role as both the architect and constituent of the fantasy realm — simultaneously projecting his emotional turmoil outward and manifesting the motivating factors that sourced them.

There is a moment when Max is first sailing to the island — and several smaller ones during his stay — when he pauses and looks straight at the camera. This, combined with the graffitied studio logos during the intro, suggests that the film, like the island, is both a product and container of Max’s mental processes. He stares out at the audience, but also inward to himself, with knowing looks at the camera. He is at the mercy of his own worst imaginings. In a similar way, the island can be read as an Eden-like paradise with Max as both the deity and Adam/Eve. Although Max isn’t formally banished, his final departure is implied to be irreversible — a punishing act of absolution. Ultimately, the island is a holding space for his own mental workshopping, offering him the tools and spaces he needs to not only emotionally ground but also extricate himself from his knotted home life.

Even though the home of the wild things is undeniably manufactured, its artificiality plays into the same facet that threatens Max in the classroom earlier in the film. When Max’s teacher jokes that one day the sun will explode, wiping out all life everywhere, Max’s impermanence is made scarily real to him. He carries this horrific obsession until later in the film when he ventures into the desert with Carol, one of the wild things. While walking through the dunes, Max reinvokes the sentiment to Carol, who respectively breaks down in fear. She exclaims that the desert they are walking through represents one of the final stages in the cycle of material regression — that eventually everything will break down into dust — and that no matter what they built or muster in their lives, it will fade away into nothingness and then eventually less than nothingness. 

Carol wonders about the point of doing anything and that perhaps it’s better to lean into such wholescale destruction. However, her intense fears and the later destruction of the communal lumber fort make Max realize that although death is inevitable and inherent to life, living shouldn’t be discounted. Eventually, friendships fall apart, childhood cedes to responsibility and chance disasters strike regardless of where you run off to or how you secret yourself away. The best solution is to practice losing, and after that, losing farther and losing faster; not every loss is permanent, even ones that often leave constructive rubble in their wake.

So, when Max finally decides to leave the island and return home, although his departure from his wild things is melancholic, it is not an act of vacancy. He loses sight of the physical smiling faces on the shores, but retains the labored impact they have vested onto him over the course of his stay. Where the island saw Max rule over a domain of humanoid absence, his house promises not to offer an eternal safe harbor, but instead, a ground for reconciliation and lossed amendment. As the fantasy images wash away into the sea of his mind, ostensibly lost to eternity, its dweller’s shadows and footprints built, and continue to build, undeniable legacies and friendships. 

Constructs which will be augmented through loss again and again, ad infinitum, until Max, like the sun, meets his end. Yet, because they are born from loss, their ultimate loss is not to be feared but accepted. Similarly, the movie’s circumnavigating plot structure suggests that the art of losing is best demonstrated via its prediction of prefacing the journey over the destination. Learn to imagine an impossible world and to build as high as you can reach. One day, it will all crumble and return to dust, but even then, you can know that you did it.

 Contact columnist Henry Skalbeck at henry.skalbeck@richmond.edu. 

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