James Pankratz, Friends of the Family

After returning home from the movies one evening, I had the uneasy feeling that something was in the attic. Something wild. Armed with a flashlight with a flickering bulb, I mounted the stairs. I looked through piles of stuff, but found nothing. But the attic is not where the wild things are. They live on an island.

That is the premise of the movie “Where the Wild Things Are,” in which a young boy, somewhere between the ages of 7 and 10, pilots a sailboat across uncharted waters to a mythical land inhabited by enormous beasts who make him king.

I had gone to the attic to look for the book that inspired the movie. Maurice Sendak’s book contains only nine sentences. But they are nine beautifully constructed sentences enhanced with striking illustrations of another land, the land of a child’s imagination. The dog-eared pages of our missing paperback copy testify to the fact that it was much loved by our sons.

The movie expands upon the premise of the book while remaining faithful to the spirit of the original. This is no surprise since the director, Spike Jonze, had the good sense to consult with Maurice Sendak. Good films are usually built on a solid script, which in turn is written or inspired by a creative author. Sendak is the creator of the vision.

Young Max, played wonderfully by child actor Max Records, is at the center of the movie. The director and the actor make Max a real boy. And that’s the strength of the film. Max is bright-eyed and engaging, but he has a volcano inside that erupts in messy, unpredictable ways for his single mother. She clearly loves her precocious son, but it is clear that she feels overwhelmed by him at times.

This is never more apparent than in a key scene that sets the movie in motion. One evening Max peeks into the living room to glimpse his mother and her boyfriend kissing.  Shortly after, dressed in his fuzzy wolf suit, Max leaps onto the kitchen table while his mother is making supper. He demands, “Feed me, woman!” She reacts to this provocation by screaming, “What is wrong with you?” Max flees the house in tears and takes a sailboat ride to the island. We don’t agree with what Max does, but we know why he does it. He wants his mother to himself. The movie implies, but never states, that he is grieving the loss of his father.

At the island, Max meets a community of tall, furry, lumbering beasts. Their semi-scary appearance is balanced by their naiveté and innocence. Their first impulse is to eat Max, but he uses his wits to talk them out of their plan and to make him king instead. The beasts are never really scary, because they are like children themselves. In fact, in many ways they are bigger versions of Max.

The movie is about the feelings of childhood. It is about the ferocity of a child’s emotions. When Max is angry, he is really angry. He persuades the beasts to engage in a dirt-clod war, which starts out as a lark, but then some of them get hurt. When Max feels pain, it really hurts. And when Max and his beast comrades go whooping and running through the forest, they are exhilarated. They jump on one another and then fall asleep.

His beast friends – Carol, Judith, KW, Douglas, Alexander and Ira – are all more than a little sad. Just like Max. The movie is honest about that, too. Childhood is a time when a newcomer into this world is thrust into never-ending experiences of forces beyond his control. Others don’t play fair. Early in the movie another child wrecks Max’s snow cave. Parents divorce. Teachers yell. Loss and helplessness result. Anyone who believes that childhood is a time of tranquility has a short memory.

Children’s emotions are powerful, immediate and direct. This can be threatening to adults. Too often adults try to make those emotions go away. Comments like “Why are you getting upset? … It’s not that bad…. I’ll give you something to cry about…. Get over it” only convince children that we don’t really understand them. Who wouldn’t want to sail to an island where everyone is like me?

The movie is also about the power of imagination to transform emotions.

A few days ago on my morning walk, I ran into Max. Across the street was a boy dressed in a winter coat carrying an oversized black backpack. He ran exuberantly for about a third of a block, then slowed to a walk. Then he began waving his arms, as if conducting an invisible orchestra, and singing a marvelous, loopy song.

I wondered if he was as lucky as the Max in the movie, who had two things going for him: a vivid imagination that he could use to manage and transcend the emotions of childhood, and a loving mother who welcomed him back to the house at the end of the movie with open arms and a large piece of chocolate cake.

Go, kid, go. “Let the wild rumpus start!”

(Pankratz is a marriage and family therapist at Catholic Charities Milwaukee regional office.)