Movie review: Where the Wild Things Are

October 29th, 2009

Rose Cappelli and her daughter recently went to see the much-anticipated movie version of Where the Wild Things Are. If you haven’t see it yet, read Rose’s review before you head to the theater! If you have seen it, leave your impressions about the movie in the comments section! Rose is the coauthor of Mentor Texts and Nonfiction Mentor Texts.

Mentors, Magic, and Memories

When I was a little girl, the classic 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz was broadcast once every year on network television. I remember looking forward to this magical event when I could once again slip into those ruby slippers right along with Dorothy. As I grew, my insights into the story deepened. I remember the first time I realized that the characters Dorothy met in the land of Oz represented important people in her life. When I was old enough to read the book, I saw it from a different perspective, thinking about the universal themes depicted in the story. Even into adulthood, my understanding of these well known characters has deepened as I’ve considered them through a different lens. 

So it is, I think, with many childhood classics that we revisit at different stages in our lives. We bring all of our experiences and understandings of the world up to that point to each reading experience, which perhaps allows us to see things differently or to think and understand more deeply. In the 2009 movie version of Maurice Sendak’s classic tale of misbehaving Max , Where the Wild Things Are, director Spike Jonze offers those who may have first met Max as a child, or perhaps in the company of a child,  the opportunity to experience his world once again but with a deeper understanding.  The movie is an amazing accomplishment that not only preserves the integrity of the original picture book, but also pays tribute to Sendak as mentor.

Spike Jonze was Max’s contemporary as a young boy, connecting with him and the magical world he ruled. Jonze loved Sendak’s books and revisited them often, especially when he began to direct music videos. He studied how Sendak was able to create a world and tell a whole story in just thirty-seven pages, with some detailed images and a few hundred words.  That’s what Jonze would have to do with his music videos – find the kind of structure that would clearly tell a story in a short span of time through images and, in this case, music. Sendak’s work helped him to discover the narrative structure he was looking for.  The two eventually became friends and actually collaborated on the movie, with Sendak acting as producer and, once again, mentor.

In making the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze had the opposite task – take a short little book and elongate it into a feature length film. What he so expertly did was to take us deeper into Max’s personality and imagination rather than add so much to the original story that would only serve to distort it. In the opening scenes we see Max in all his boyhood wildness – chasing his dog, running through the house, initiating a snowball fight, letting anger rule his impulsive actions. We so quickly identify and sympathize with him that we easily feel the need for his escape to a place where he can sort out the confusions that are a part of his life. When Max reaches the land of the wild things Jonze uses his magic and creativity to help us better understand these creatures who “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” He gives them names and distinct personalities, and brings them to life by letting them talk. They become the emotions that Max (and most of us) deal with as we try to make sense of the world. We can easily relate to the jealousies, insecurities, and anxieties of the wild things. And we are right there with Max when they offer those words of wisdom that help him realize that he can’t create a perfect world or a perfect self, but he can learn to understand his world better by being the best he can be.

Both the book and the movie offer a wealth of classroom connections to teachers, especially in the area of teaching the elements of story. Sendak and Jonze have created vivid settings that are important to understanding the story, and the clear problem/solution is a good example to students of any age. But I think the greatest connection comes with studying the characters. By comparing and contrasting both works, students can find the elements that authors and filmmakers use to help readers understand and identify with characters, and the important role characters have in moving the plot forward. Older students, especially, can learn the value of revisiting a book to study its structure and craft and to deepen comprehension. They are the audience who will better understand the movie and appreciate the techniques Jonze used to bring us deeper into Max’s imagination.

So grab a friend, preferably a teenager or young adult who grew up with Max, or maybe someone who appreciates the frustrations of a child’s world, and “let the wild rumpus start!” because this movie is definitely worth making a rumpus about.

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