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'Where the Wild Things Are' (2009) Is About the Difficulty of Single Parenthood

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Lee has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.


From Book to Film

Where the Wild Things Are is a 2009 film based on the Maurice Sendak children's book of the same name, and it is quite possibly the only movie I know that manages to pull off a combination of CGI and real-life costumes well. It combines actors in costumes with CGI animation and animatronics for a completely realistic and yet mystifying feel. When you look at this movie, you feel the Wild Things are real beings.

As someone who grew up with Maurice Sendak's books, I went to see this film when it came out in 2009 -- despite all the ridicule I faced -- and I loved it. If only this film had existed when I was a child! I'll never for the life of me understand why people hate this movie. I feel it took a very short and entertaining book and turned it into a full-length story with characters you could love.

The film made the Wild Things people instead of just random monsters in a two-minute children's book (not that I'm putting down the book). It gave them names and personalities and desires, and as result, it made them as utterly real as the CGI did.


Plot Summary (Spoilers Ahead)

Max (Max Records) is a very lonely little boy with a very wild imagination.

In the opening of the film, we learn why he has such a wild imagination: he has to. He has no one else to play with, so he has to make up someone.

We are shown how his sister (Pepita Emmerichs) ignores him and doesn't appear to care about him at all. Longing to have someone to play with, he goads her friends into a snowball fight. This ends in tears when he hides inside his igloo and his sister's friends smash the igloo with him inside.

Max crawls out, crying and in pain, and looks to his sister for comfort. His sister ignores him. Her face doesn't even show pity. She just gets in the car and leaves with her friends, which hurts her brother so much that he goes up to her room and smashes her stuff.

Max's mother (Catherine Keener) is kind and loving to her son but also appears to be too busy for him most of the time.

Max's mother (Catherine Keener) is kind and loving to her son but also appears to be too busy for him most of the time.


Trouble at Home

Because of his loneliness and unchecked anger issues, Max is a very misbehaved little boy. He gets angry at his mother for having her boyfriend over for dinner and embarrasses her by jumping on the table and screaming, "Feed me woman!"

When his mother tells him to get down, he shouts, "I'll eat you up!" and takes off running. His mother catches him, and he bites her.

It's clear from his shocked reaction that he didn't mean to really hurt his mother and got carried away. Horrified, Max flees into the night before getting in an abandoned boat and running away.

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Meet the Wild Things

When Max first arrives where the Wild Things are, it's nighttime. The Wild Things are in the woods and appear to be arguing. The "main" Wild Thing, the one with the stripes, the one most people my age can identify from the book, is named Carol (James Gandolfini) and he's throwing a tantrum very reminiscent of Max.

Carol appears to be building a fire out of a huge pile of wood. One of the Wild Things, a smaller goat-like one named Alexander (Paul Dano), tries to help but is ignored.

Apparently, Carol is angry that a Wild Thing named K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) has left the group to be on her own, so his solution is to smash everything and set it on fire.

Judith, that unapologetic bitch. Love her.

Judith, that unapologetic bitch. Love her.

An About Face

Max decides to rush in and starts wildly helping Carol smash everything. Carol welcomes him and challenges him to see who can smash faster. He then goes off some feet away, smashing a bunch of borrow-like structures made of sticks.

Max is about to continue smashing the structures when the other Wild Things angrily tell him to stop. The bird-like Wild thing, Douglas (Chris Cooper), goes into a hilarious rant, lecturing Max about his bad behavior and revealing that he's actually destroying their houses. It's a bit ironic considering how upset Max was about his igloo being destroyed only ten minutes ago.

Unlike his mother, Max can not bite or bully Douglas, who is ten times bigger than him, and so he can only stammer out an apology. This was a way of acknowledging that Max was in desperate need of a father figure in his life. The beginning of the film showed us that his father wasn't around and that his mother was dating. A boy with his wild temper needed a stern, disciplinary figure who was physically intimidating in a firm but gentle and reasonable way, and Douglas embodied that.

The other Wild Things chime in, and Judith (Catherine O'Hara) suggests eating Max (picture above).

Can I just pause here to say how great it is that they bothered to give us two token female Wild Things instead of one? Would have been even better to have had three, but let's not get greedy! We all know men are the default norm!

Moment of Zen

As the Wild Things close in to eat him, Max realizes perhaps for the first time how it must've been to be his mother, having to contend with his "I'll eat you up!" temper every day. He yells for the Wild Things to be still and -- amazingly enough -- they are.

He then makes up a story about what a powerful wizard he is and how he could explode their heads if he wanted and how he used to be a king to some Vikings that he conquered. With childlike innocence, the Wild Things believe him and enter into a schoolyard banter about the likelihood of his powers.

Then Carol asks a heartbreaking question,

"So you were their king? You made everything better? What about loneliness?"

It becomes clear that Carol is lonely because K.W. left the group. He doesn't know how to deal with his loneliness in a healthy way, so he smashes things. He is basically a caricature of Max.

Douglas then chimes in with,

"What he means is, can you keep the sadness out?"

And Max's answer is heartwarming,

"I have a sadness shield that keeps out all the sadness."


And so, just like in the children's book, Max is made king of the Wild Things.

Let the wild rumpus begin!


Carol names all the Wild Things for Max, though we, the audience, know most of their names by now.

Aside from The Bull (Michael J. Berry) who rarely speaks and has no official name, Ira (Forest Whitaker) is the only Wild Thing whose name we don't know. He is introduced as the lover of Judith and the one who "punches the holes in the trees."

Soon after Ira introduces himself, Judith loudly clears her throat until she is introduced, at which point she slurps Max's face.


A cute scene follows where the Wild Things pile on top of each other and go to sleep. Max has a chat with K.W. and the scene leaves us with the sense that she is intelligent, kind, and a good listener -- no wonder she's Carol's favorite. Carol is emotionally disturbed. It would be easy to see him treating K.W. like free therapy.

It's my theory that each of the Wild Things represents someone from Max's life or some aspect of Max himself. Judith seems to be a caricature of his uncaring and mean sister (who loves him deep down), while K.W. is a bit like his mother, Douglas is the father who left, and Carol reflects Max himself.

Alexander -- the smallest Wild Thing who often goes ignored -- could be the aspect of Max that feels small and ignored.

Ira is the part of Max that still loves and dotes on his sister, no matter how abusive she is (we see Judith playfully smack Ira with a huge tree branch).

And The Bull, the quiet Wild Thing that rarely speaks, could easily be the darkness in Max -- the dark anger that made him lash out and bite his mother.


In the morning, Carol takes Max around the island and shows him his kingdom, and the scene where they walk across the sand is very beautiful.

Carol takes Max to his secret place and shows him a model he made of the island. The model is the way he'd like the island to be. Max then has the idea to build a fortress for the Wild Things to live in. The Wild Things agree, and they set to work.


Judith eventually notices that Max has become very close to Carol, who he hugs after carving his initials into a tree with him. In a jealous fit, she picks a fight with Max and gets her feelings hurt when he argues back.

"You know what? You can't do that back to me. If we're upset, your job is not to get upset back at us. Our job is to be upset. If I get mad and wanna eat you, then you have to say: "Oh, okay. You can eat me. I love you. Whatever makes you happy, Judith." That's what you're supposed to do!"

Judith has some of the best lines in this film.

In this moment, it becomes clear that most of the Wild Things see Max as a parent and guide. He isn't supposed to argue with them. He is supposed to coddle them, show infinite patience, and love them unconditionally.

It also becomes clear why K.W. left the group for a while: she got tired of being the mother figure. She got tired of being everyone's free therapy and of supplying free emotional labor, so she went off on her own to get a much-needed break.

Wishing to protect Max, K.W. steps in and takes him away from the others for a while.


She takes him to see Bob and Terry, her two owl friends.

Yes, owl friends.

I personally thought this was so dumb. Why did this need to be in the film? What was the point? To make K.W. seem insane? Well, it worked. Even Max is looking at her like she's nuts at the end of this scene.

Maybe being the mother figure of six psycho Wild Things actually drove her insane.


When K.W. returns to the fort with Bob and Terry, Carol becomes jealous and voices my opinion by calling owls "dumb." He then storms off to be on his own.

Max finds Carol and comforts him by suggesting a dirt-clod war which will allow the Wild Things to vent their frustrations. This only makes things worse.

Alexander gets his feelings hurt when he is injured and no one cares. You'd think Max would understand after what happened to him in the opening of the film, but no. Even Max refuses to recognize Alexander's hurt.

The scene culminates in more childlike drama when Carol and K.W. argue. Carol storms off -- again -- leaving K.W. sad and tired.


Later that night, it snows. Carol takes off again when he suspects that Max has no powers (aside from a weird, awkward robot dance). Max spends the day looking for him and stumbles across Alexander instead, who is sitting alone and is very sad.

Max realizes for the first time that he let being king go to his head. Because of him, Alexander was seriously hurt, and to make matters worse, he ignored him -- just the way his sister ignored him when he was hurt.

Max apologizes and observes with pity that no one ever listens to Alexander. Alexander says he doubts Max knows what it's like, being king and all. There's a moment when Max hesitates as if he's going to reveal that he knows exactly what it's like to be ignored, and in that moment, Alexander realizes that Max isn't really a king -- he's "regular."

Alexander says he doesn't care but warns Max not to let Carol find out.

The music strikes an ominous cord, telling us that something very bad would happen if Carol's delusions were shattered. The opening scene with the Wild Things, when Carol was going around destroying everyone's houses, shows how emotionally unstable he is.

When Max first reaches the island, he notices a pile of bones and asks if they are the kings that came before him. Carol shrugs it off and changes the subject.

Alexander has just answered the question that Carol would not.


After his chat with Alexander, Max starts to become more and more terrified of Carol, who has been displaying an alarming amount of aggression since the night Max did his weird fail-dance.

Max decides to build a little room for himself that he can hide in -- a panic room, if you will. When Carol catches him, he throws a tantrum and punches a hole in the wall, terrifying Max.


Things quickly reach their climax when an agitated Carol wakes everyone up in the middle of the night, wanting to tear down the fort. He no longer trusts Max and nearly attacks him before Douglas steps in.

Douglas gently explains that Max isn't a king -- he's a boy pretending to be a wolf, pretending to be a king. This sets Carol off, who attacks Douglas and rips his arm off. He then turns on Max and shouts, "I'll eat you up!"

Terrified, Max takes off running.


Max runs into K.W. out in the woods, who hides him inside her mouth until Carol has gone. When she pulls him out again, he says he wishes the Wild Things had a mom, not realizing that "mom" is K.W.

Then he decides to go home.


Max tries to say goodbye to Carol, but Carol acts like a belligerent asshole, so he goes ahead with the other Wild Things to the shore. He hugs them goodbye, and then K.W. says one of my favorite lines from the book,

"Don't go. I'll eat you up, I love you so."


Carol shows up at the last minute to say goodbye to Max, but it's too late: Max is already out on the water. Carol howls in farewell instead. The other Wild Things join in, panning to a beautiful shot of them standing in the water, howling as Max sails away.


And so, Max returns to his overjoyed mother, having learned that being a single parent is f****** hard and he should cut the woman some slack.

The End.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Lee

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