Release the Beasties

Anthony Templeton

“Let the wild rumpus start!”, declares Max, and the gang of monsters who have crowned him their king begin to howl into the dark forest sky. Spike Jones’s new adaptation of the classic Maurice Sendak children’s book has fans howling mischievously across the country. The mass appeal of the film is the simple way it touches on the most basic things children naturally long for: Independence, really cool forts, dirt-clod fights, sleep-overs and pig piles.

If this is a children’s movie, someone should tell the children. A recent crowd at the 10:25 p.m. showing of the film was conspicuously absent of children, or more accurately, anyone under the age of 20. The story which was published in 1963 is as big a draw for the adults who grew up on it, as it is for their children and anyone eating psychotropic mushrooms.

In the tradition of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and children’s books that were written prior the Department of Youth Services intervening over a spanking, Sendak writes about the darker realm of children’s fantasy. After the book was first published in 1963 Brian O’Doherty of the New York Times said of Sendak’s work that it “disguised in fantasy, springs from the vagrant child that lurks in the heart of all of us.”

The reason that “Where the Wild Things Are” probably wasn’t made into a movie sooner is that for forty years after the book came out, children were coddled and treated as if the slightest upset could cause irreversible damage to their psyche, or at least induce some bed-wetting nightmares. The advent of the “Harry Potter” series has given rise once again to the idea that children can bear a lot more psychologically than we give them credit for. As Sendak himself noted in his acceptance speech for the prestigious Caldecott Award in 1964 “It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things.” The monsters that Max must master represent the many facets of his developing id and ego that he must come to terms with.

The visual imagery of the film is wonderfully true to Sendak’s book. Ominous skies, bonfires deep in the forest and raging seas set the stage for the subconscious dream-scape of the main character, Max. Rambunctious and misunderstood, the 9 year old Max flees to a land populated by a band of unpredictable goblins that yearn for a new leader.

The monsters make him their king, which he later learns may be a perilous occupation. Metaphors and analogies for Max’s real life abound in the dreamland, and the relationship between Max and the most ferocious monster hint at an alcoholic father now absent from Max’s waking life.

The transition from one world to the other was handled poorly, as was the sugar-coated departure from Sendak’s original ending. The wild things however, are well fleshed out and beautifully played by a veteran cast. The animatronics and puppet work give it a realism that’s often absent from fantasy films in this age of computer graphic imagery, and the result is a whole lot of fun. If you love this film, you’ll be glad to know that it’s part of a trilogy. The other two books, “In The Night Kitchen” and “Outside Over There” have already been adapted for the screen. “In the Night Kitchen” is a seven minute animated short produced in 1987, and “Outside Over There” was the inspiration for the 1986 film “Labyrinth”, starring David Bowie. With the box office creaking under the weight of the money that “Where The Wild Things Are” is pulling in though, remakes of the other two are sure to follow in Max’s footsteps.