Two seconds into Where the Wild Things Are, I was in love with it. Two minutes into Where the Wild Things Are, it’d reduced me to tears. It didn’t matter how terrible and reckless and awful Max was; I couldn’t shake the overwhelming urge to brush his shaggy bangs from his damp little face. I just wanted to sit on the edge of his bunk and reassure him that, someday, he’d grow into himself.
This is the real triumph of Where the Wild Things Are. The genius is not the puppetry and effects of the Wild world; it’s the unexpected evocation of the emotions we try to repress, of those awkward, selfish, dazzling years when no one understood us and we had yet to discover that we were also supposed to be trying to understand others. It’s strange how easy it is to forget what it felt like to be ten years old. It’s equally strange to find yourself feeling ten years old again, alone at a movie theatre—and not in that romanticized, apple-cheeked way Hollywood favors, but in the realest and ugliest of ways: destructive and lonely and certain it’s not your fault.
Strangely, the best parts of this film occur in the collection of moments before Max meets the Wild Things. Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze so masterfully captured the strange isolation Max feels; every inch of his body has grown attune to the full range of human emotion but no part of him has figured out how to manage it. For the first twenty minutes or so, Max wins and breaks our hearts about five times. He tugs at the toes of his mom’s nylons while telling her an imaginative little story. He frolics in an igloo built of heavy, wet snow and endears his older sister’s friends by starting a snowball fight with them. Then, he begins proving himself incapable of handling the situations he rips himself into. His tears are large and understandable. Like a tornado, he’s constantly spinning with awe and destruction, and you can’t look away.
By the time the precipitous incident occurs, where Max flees toward an unknown world, we understand him as our proxy and want him to find peace and acceptance, just as much as he does. So we feel genuine concern, then outright fear for him as he becomes more and more entrenched in his new place as “king” of the Wilds, a cluster of self-destructive narcissists even farther gone than Max himself.
Their appearance, at once monstrous and sympathetic—in a comforting homage to the 1963 source material—would be irrelevant here, if each creature weren’t so beautifully rendered. They are serious, complicated and duplicitous—just like Max believes his mother and sister are. But here, the stakes are even higher than they are at home: if Max doesn’t learn to figure out how to navigate the labyrinth of his new friends’ mercurial emotions, it’s very probable—almost imminent—that they’ll eat him.
For the sensitive, imaginative child, a fantasy world is not simply a retreat; it’s an academy. Max is in the accelerated program—and so are we. Fortunately for us all, Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers are very capable teachers.