Wild creatures throw stick and stones, their emotions as wild as the untamed, island night. Young boys live out fantasies as kings, their only decree that there be unnecessary rules or needless gallantry among their monster knights. And as the rumpus carries on, the glow of the fire seen from every angle in the bristling dark woods, the king and his monsters refuse to curtail their emotions, devoting their energy into experiencing the most raw feeling imaginable.
Most movies are linear stories, a select few are extended celebrations or events. “Where the Wild Kings Are” is among that rare latter, where instead of characters having emotion reactions to story events, the story events themselves are the characters’ reactions. This is appropriate, considering the Maurice Sendak picture book on which the movie is based is also simple and non-linear, conveying a mood of childlike mischief more than an actual story.
Max Records plays Max, a spirited and deeply-sensitive boy who is in dire straits after girls trample his beloved snow igloo. His mom (Catherine Keener) comforts Max, knowing that her son’s emotional state is fragile, devoting her time to fanning her son’s inner creative flame. Max thinks of himself as an explorer but is dependent on the structure systems in his life. He probably wouldn’t even think to explore a sandbox if his mom wasn’t there from the other side rooting him on.
But Max feels threatened when mom brings home a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), angry as if she only has a limited amount of love to give, and this 40-something guy is stealing Max’s daily dose. Max acts out, mom gets upset, and with the harsh truth that his trusted support system has failed him, Max ventures out into the wilderness, setting sail to the land of the wild things.
The first Max encounters is Carol (James Gandolfini), a lively, semi-leader, and Douglas (Chris Cooper), his stoic, determined bird confidant. Joining them are the melancholy Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and her loving beau Ira (Forest Whitaker). Max rustles the group’s feathers and is nearly engorged by the gruesome beasts until he proclaims himself a king from a far-away land. The monsters buy the lie, as Max enacts a new island political platform of rumpus-having, fort-building, and stone-throwing good times.
Just like Max with his mom, the monsters are eager to live in a world without rules while still clinging to their desire for structure and organization. And just like Max, each of these monsters has a childlike inability to control their emotions, devoting as much energy into a single feeling as if to convince others of their inner truth. Judith is apparently a downer, and wastes no time living up to her reputation. Carol toggles between joy and anger with the snap of a stick, unable to decide if he wants to be Max’s caretaker, or Max his. And the monsters continuing inability to recognize or relate to each other, despite going through the same problems, reflects the need of children to be perceived as mature and intelligent, but without any of the responsibility that maturity brings.
It isn’t surprising when Max fails as king, nor would it be surprising if were explicitly stated these monsters to be make believe. Whether Max actually voyaged across the sea to the place where wild things roam is irrelevant, as his journey reveals powerful truths about not holding your loved ones to higher standards than they reach, and that you aren’t entitled to get upset when someone is upset with you.
That message could have been lost on viewers, but Spike Jonze sprinkles sweeping visuals and raw emotion into “Where the Wild Things Are,” making us laugh and cry without cause or explanation. Some might find that frustrating, but if the purpose of movies is to transport audiences to new worlds and provide catharsis, “Where the Wild Things Are” succeeds magnificently within that structure.