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Where the Wilds Things Are

Gareth Higgins

Directed by Spike Jonze
­­­­Certificate PG, 101 mins

Wildthings.jpgExpressive monsters are the best kind, I suppose - there's a moment in Robert Zemeckis' extraordinary new version of A Christmas Carol in which a flat horse suddenly turns demonic and three-dimensional - piercing red eyes thrusting out of the screen and into the audience's benign nightmares. Had he looked like the kind of horse I would draw, the effect would be somewhat muted; we need our Satanic equines to be larger than life, baying for Scrooge's blood if we're to take seriously his redemptive journey. Otherwise we put the heart before the horse. If the imagination is where our identity resides, then Max, the protagonist of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's story Where the Wild Things Are, has a highly developed sense of self.

The cinematic version of the same title is a magnificent film about childhood rather than a film for children (although older kids will be enraptured, despite some deliberately dark moments). It relates how Max, a troubled kid, acts out his rage by dreaming his way into a 'wild rumpus' with monsters neurotic and lonely, powerful and funny, tender and vibrant. They dance the night away, and build a fort to protect themselves from other people's problems.  But in the morning, Max knows he has to go home, so he sets sail, bids a bittersweet farewell, and the monsters go back to what they were doing before, leaving perhaps a little less destruction in their wake.

The French title of the film, Max et les Maximonstres, is as expressive as the monsters, perfectly evoking the id-ego-superego arc of the narrative. The monsters, of course, are functions of Max's imagination, parts of himself finding voice in his dreams. The magic key in the film is that the psyche is capable of greater things than the conscious mind can often  acknowledge.

Max's monsters admonish him that other people's suffering should elicit empathy, rather than being a cue for self-pity.  This is the kind of wisdom that adults often conceal from themselves. It reminds me of David Mamet's suggestion that the best way to grow up is to imagine what someone smarter would do, and then just do it. I imagine that plenty of people smarter than I will know that 90 minutes with this movie could be an investment in the healing of memories, and the more rounded interpretation of self.

I didn't grow up with this book, so I watched Jonze's film (co-written by the po-mo-lit coolness avatar Dave Eggers) without the baggage of childhood nostalgia. Not having a pre-existing sense of who Max is and why I should care meant the film could do its work without needing to live up to an unreachable standard. Nothing that felt magical when we were children can ever feel that way again: the world has gotten smaller, we have gotten bigger, and we have learned that responsibility can get in the way of creativity. ­More's the pity, says Sendak: the world may be a scary place, but our fear has more to do with living in a cynical age than the existence of real monsters out to get us. Taking life seriously is one thing, taking yourself too seriously is another; the journey toward being an integrated adult self is the journey toward balancing work with wonder. If you lose wonder, then all you've got is tasks.

Gareth Higgins