Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are -- frustrations, fun, and family

Director: Spike Jonze, 2009.

Walking out of the theater, it seemed as if I was the only person not lauding this movie. Indeed, my 11-year-old daughter cried at the end, and she rarely does that. In contrast, I could barely contain my yawns midway through and was eager for the movie to end. Even the sense of immediacy conveyed by the hand-held camerawork was not enough to engage me. Perhaps it would have helped if I had read the book. But growing up in England, I was raised with Enid Blyton and Commander Biggles, not King Max and these creatures.

The biggest money-making films of recent times have been based on children's books or toys. Think of classics like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe from the "Chronicles of Narnia" series, or the massive Harry Potter tales. This summer's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was followed by Transformers 2, both raking in over $800M world-wide. So it's not surprising that Maurice Sendak's award-winning 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are, gets the big screen treatment. Sendak himself approached Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) about this film adaptation, and Jonze wrote the screenplay.

The story is all about Max. Newcomer Max Records plays his namesake and brings a wonderful quality to the main character who is in almost every scene. He captures the childlike emotions beautifully. Max is a product of a broken home, and is largely ignored by his elder sister and his mother (Catherine Keener). This loneliness drives him inward and fuels a fertile imagination.

In the first scene we get a sense of the loneliness and resentment that characterize Max's soul. He is playing in the snow, apparently friendless. Talking to himself, he waves imaginary soldiers to their positions. He prepares snowball ammunition to "attack" his sister's friends and wages war as they emerge from the house. The fun is fast and furious until they overpower him and destroy his igloo fort. Suddenly fun turns serious. Max' loneliness retreats and anger emerges.

Not only do we get a glimpse into the real Max and his deep emotional issues here, we also get a picture of ourselves. Too often we find ourselves lonely even in the midst of so many people. We may be surrounded by others, at home, at work, at church, at a sports event. Yet how many of them are our friends? How many will come play or hang with us even if we ask them? Max asked his sister to come see his creation, but she was too busy talking with her friends. This can be true for us. We may be lonely. And loneliness can turn into sadness or anger in a heartbeat, particularly when we are offended or hurt.

To combat this, we can be less sensitive and more guarded. We can be self-controlled (1 Thess. 5:6), not allowing our fickle emotions to rule our actions. And, on the other side of the fence, we can be more sensitive to others. We can look more gently and caringly on our siblings, our children, even our parents. Are there signs of loneliness or withdrawal? Are we spending enough time with them, listening to them, being with them, showing our love to them? This is critically important. Just as Jesus came and spent time with us, showing us in his life, as well as his death (Rom. 5:8), that he loved us, so we show our love to others with our time, not our pocketbooks.

When Max's mom brings home a boyfriend, Max is further isolated and reacts with a childish tantrum. For this, he is sent to bed without supper. But he is full of indignation and angry energy, and runs away. In escaping from his family, he eventually finds himself alone on an island. It is here, in the wilds of the forest, that he finds the wild things of the title.

These wild creatures stand almost 8 feet tall and are the creation of a combination of costumes (made by The Jim Henson Company, creators of the Muppets), animatronics, and computer generated faces. There are about a half-dozen, none looking particularly wild or ferocious. But they are a family of sorts.

When Max sees these wild things, one of them, Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is having a temper tantrum, destroying things because his friend has left him. This is a mirror-image of Max. Realizing this is a kindred soul, Max emerges from his hiding place. But he is discovered. To protect himself, he declares himself a king, a thing these wild things want. The first order of business for King Max: "Let the wild rumpus start." Then, when Carol shows him this wild and deserted island, he tells Max, "You're the owner of this world."

In a sense, Max is like God. He is their king and the owner of all that they can see on their land. God is king, though many refute this claim. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psa. 50:10), and the hills themselves. And just like Max coming to his land, God came down to earth in Jesus But Jesus came as a humble servant (Mk. 10:45), not ready to claim his kingdom. Pilate asked him if he was a king (Jn. 18:33), and Jesus did not deny it (Jn. 18:36-37). But his kingdom is yet emerging. It is a spiritual kingdom, a kingdom of willing souls. As we yield to him and serve him, his kingdom is being established even now. But we must await his second and regal coming for its ultimate physical establishment. At that time, he will own all the land, all the earth, and all will see and know this.

As King, Max wanted to bring fun to this family. When Carol gets excited and says, "It's going to be a place where only the things you want to happen, would happen," he is tapping into this belief that a king can make us happy by making good things happen. And Max replies, "We could totally build a place like that!" And Max does bring this group together, with fun and a grand mission to build a fort. But like the snowball scene, when Max' wild fun with the wild things gets out of hand, frustration and fighting take over. Then family tensions and jealousies recur. Even a king cannot solve all the wild things' problems with fun.

Fun is not the answer to our problems, as evidenced here. A human king has power, but not enough to change the soul. Sin shows its ugly face and incites selfishness leading to separation. This is just like real life. We are creatures with an ugly interior (Jer. 17:9), that we keep hidden for the most part. When we let our masks down, fun devolves to fracas. But the one true King, Jesus, does have the power to change the souls of men. He can transform us from within, making us new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). No longer wild things, through Jesus we are now beautiful and pure people destined to be conformed to his very image (Rom. 8:29).

Ultimately, Max discovers the value of family, even a broken and imperfect one. His imaginative journey leads to this self-discovery. Even though the cinematic journey is moody and downbeat, overly sad for too long, this message is an important one. We are all broken in one way or another. Yet our family is valuable and to be cherished. Running away to a world of fun is not the answer. Leave those wild things where they are, and return home.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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