By Christopher Byrne
I have been haunted, delighted, mesmerized and just plain thinking about Where The Wild Things Are since I saw this amazing movie a couple of weeks ago. However, I’m not going to review it here. Our own Cynthia Fuchs did a great job with that.
It needs to be seen because in our culture right now, there is so much pressure on kids to perform, to meet standards set by adults and to behave in specific ways. In everything kids do, the results are the key and very little attention is paid either to process or how children perceive the world. We have so hemmed kids in by structures (school and activities primarily) where there is an adult expert guiding the experiences, that many times a child who does not adapt to these and is behaving in a way that is natural to him or her is either seen as difficult, ill or worse. There is little room for kids to experience, fail, hurt, learn, grow, just be and find their own ways.
That’s why Max’s odyssey is so important for adults to see. It captures the chaotic and confusing world that children perceive and chronicles Max’s attempts to identify experience, understand his impact on the world, be able to perceive all of this and integrate it into his personality. Max is at turns, violent, compassionate, angry, sad and clueless about what is happening to him and what he is experiencing emotionally. And it is a magnificent rendering of how a child’s mind works in trying to make sense of what he perceives as chaos and locate himself as a separate individual within it all.
Moreover, since the movie works from Max’s point of view, we experience what he does in the way he does. This is foreign to most adults who may have forgotten what that experience was like. They may recall events and may have integrated the pains and joys of growing into a structure that is consistent with maturity, but to go into the mind of a child who is overwhelmed and confused and who as yet lacks the language or context to describe his experience is something we forget—as we should. Still, the movie captures the nonlinear perception of a child and the fluidity of an unformed, or still forming, personality in a way that is profoundly moving.
When he meets his Wild Things, Jungian archetypes that populate his world, Max naturally sets himself up as king because at that age, children are remarkably self-centered, and he has learned from his mother that power comes from being in charge, something he chafes at. However, over the course of his adventures, Max learns that absolute power is not something for which he is prepared, or that he even wants. He ultimately learns that as a human, he must exist within the context of a culture and a family and having faced down his fears and come to see the consequences of his actions, he ultimately learns that “it’s time to go home.”
As he leaves the land of the Wild Things, Max is suffused with a kind of joy and a kind of eagerness that comes from surviving trial and succeeding and having a new and more mature understanding of himself.
This is also classic children’s literature—a child separated from authority and protection (parents) must find his or her way, through testing and loss and failure and danger and find that he or she can survive. It is at that point that the child becomes an individual and can participate in his or her culture.
We have seen this a million times. It’s the center of Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Star Wars and any of thousands of stories you can think of.
It concerns me, however, that so much of children’s entertainment seems fearful of the darker sides of children’s experiences. They won’t go away, no matter how many clear happy endings are pumped out. The notion that “nothing bad can happen” only makes for tepid stories that bore children. Now, I’m not suggesting that we scare kids, nor am I suggesting that everyone will be as likely to read Dickens as a bedtime story for 7-year-olds as my mother did, but what fiction can do is provide vicarious experience, form new archetypes for kids and empower them to face and overcome their demons. They’ll be better adults because of it, and Where the Wild Things Are is a wonderful reminder that this process is a natural and necessary part of growing up.