Let me get this out of the way right from the start: I barely remember anything at all about the book Where the Wild Things Are. I vaguely remembering reading it as a kid, and I remember not really “getting it.” After that, I’ve mostly ignored it and the most interaction I’ve had with it is seeing the cover in the kids’ section whenever I visit the bookstore (which is something I like to do quite often). All that to say I’m not really a fan of the book, and I have no affection or nostalgia for the book, so my review of the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are is completely based upon the merits of the movie alone. I’m not critiquing whether or not this is a faithful adaptation of the book, I’m just telling you whether or not this movie is any good… which it isn’t.
First off, here’s what I liked about the movie. Visually, this movie is a real treat and a triumph of using practical effects over CG. I’m sure CG monsters were suggested as the easy solution for this film, but I’m glad they didn’t go that route. Using actual creatures and characters gives the movie a very gritty feeling as opposed to using slick, clean CG. The monsters are all very Henson-eque in their design and function, and I loved their look. I was also impressed at the range of emotion on display in their faces. I spent a big chunk of this movie trying to figure out how the special effects and creature designers pulled all of this off (mainly because I didn’t have anything better to do). The movie very much captures the visual aesthetic of the book (at least judging by the image on the cover), and is a visual treat in its own right.
The rest of the film, however, doesn’t fare nearly as well. It’s a tedious, relentlessly monotonous, melancholy film. When I summed up the story for my wife—little boy doesn’t get his way, throws a fit and runs off to an island filled with monsters; on the island of monsters everyone fights and bickers and generally is pretty miserable, and then the boy decides to go home and his mom gives him chocolate cake—she said that’s pretty much how the book went. Well, not really remembering the book, I had a hard time trying to figure out why people would enjoy such a story. There’s no lesson learned, the boy never apologizes for treating his mother horribly in his selfish fit, the time spent with the monsters is rather depressing (I had no idea monsters could be so petty, selfish, and annoying in how they bicker and fight with each other), and I left the movie trying to figure out what the point of it all was. If it was to make me feel moody, depressed, and discontent, then I suppose it accomplished that goal, but I’m not sure why anyone would pay money to see a movie to make them feel that way.
The main message of the film seems to be that everything in life will ultimately disappoint you. Max is disappointed with his sister and her friends, then he’s disappointed with his mom not paying attention to him; the monsters are disappointed when things don’t go their way, they are disappointed when Max can’t deliver on his promises. It’s just all very disappointing. In fact, much of what happens with Max and the monsters is an allegory of how many people feel about God. The monsters make Max their king, and as their king they expect him to make sadness and loneliness go away. The king is to make everything happen just they way they want and to just generally make everything in life better. When the monsters’ own bitterness, self-centeredness, and pettiness gets in the way of that, they decide that the king must not really be a king and the only solution is to eat him. That’s exactly how we treat God.
For some reason, there’s this expectation that if God is king, then everything in life will go just the way we want. God as king will always make us happy, things will always go our way, and we’ll never be disappointed ever again. Now I’ll grant you there are some so-called Christians who certainly paint that picture of God, and it’s a dangerous picture to paint. What happens when God doesn’t live up to those expectations? What happens when God disappoints us? That disappointment can often cause us to want to eat God up in atheism, agnosticism, and scientific rationale. After all, being random products of nothingness is better than having a God who disappoints you.
Perhaps you’ve been in that place where you’ve felt like God has let you down; I know I have. In fact, I’ve been in that place several times—a place of disappointment with God. However, a closer look at the Bible shows that God isn’t interested in making us happy, he’s interested in saving our souls. He isn’t interested in making sure we have everything we want, but he’s interested in making sure we have what we need to escape hell and have eternal life. Jesus Christ didn’t die on a cross and rise from the dead to be our heavenly genie to grant our every wish, he died and rose again to be our hero and to save us from an eternity filled with pain, suffering, sin, and death.
We get disappointed with God when he doesn’t do what we want, when things don’t work out the way we expect them; but that’s an extremely self-centered, selfish way to approach God. What does he want? To save us from hell because he loves us. What does he want to do in our lives? To be there to comfort us in our pain, to help us in our times of weakness, and to be a light in our dark moments. He won’t make those things go away, but he’ll help us endure and overcome them. As one person wisely said, sometimes God doesn’t calm the storm, he calms us to go through the storm.
However, through Jesus Christ, God will also do two things that Max couldn’t do as king: he will take away loneliness because he promised to never leave us or forsake, and he will never disappoint us when we pursue his will instead of our own. In short, Jesus Christ provides the answer for what Max and those monsters were looking for but couldn’t find.
Look, I know there a lot of people who cherish this book, and I’m sure that will color how they view this film. I have the same feelings for movies based on books I love. However, apart from any such feelings I didn’t find much in Where the Wild Things Are to enjoy. It’s not that it’s a bad movie; in fact it’s very well made. The look of and feel of the film is very organic and gritty in its realism. The creature design and the practical use of special effects is really quite remarkable. The voice talent is top notch for all the creatures, and the kid who plays Max does a fair job. Yet the melancholy air becomes almost oppressive the longer this film drags on (and ironically, it really isn’t all that long). My heart ached with despair over how these characters were trudging through life full of disappointment and without hope.
I wanted to tell them there is hope, there is an answer, and it’s not found in having everything go our way and being happy all the time; it’s not found in any king we make who will always do our will, but only in the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ.
By the end of the movie I had no idea what the point of the previous hour or so was supposed to be, other than to make a film adaptation of beloved children’s book. Unfortunately, this movie is an exercise in tedium and removed from any nostalgia for the book, it just isn’t enjoyable. So if you love the book, I’m sure you’ll want to go see the movie regardless of what I say, and I think you should; you may get more out of it than I did. If you’re not a fan of the book and your curiosity is merely piqued by all the hoopla and the hype—trust me, you don’t need to run out and see what all the hoopla is about. You’ll just end up like the characters in the movie: disappointed.