I started crying just two minutes into the beginning of Where the Wild Things Are and barely stopped for the whole film. This is no film for kids, despite the story’s origins as a children’s book. Instead it takes the adult viewer back to the trauma of being a child, a place where games always end in tears.
When lonely young Max has a tantrum and bites his mother, he runs out into the night and takes a sailing boat across the sea to the land where the wild things are. This story of a child journeying to an imaginary world parallels that of The Wizard of Oz. Like Dorothy, Max becomes the leader of a gang of vulnerable monsters. And like Oz, this is a classic maturation plot where the journey is more psychological than physical.
Throughout the film the image of collapsing balls/holes repeats itself in the creation and destruction of igloos, snowballs and the monsters’ hedgy houses. The drama of being a child, of course, is that your sense of wholeness and identity is constantly under threat. The emotional demands of others threaten the integrity of your identity, yet it is that very identity that isolates us. No matter how hard you try, your family and friends can never protect you from loneliness.
No wonder children cry so much. Watching Max wrestling with these enormous traumas is almost unbearable; although there are joyous moments within the film, the recurrent emotions are fraught isolation and confused, tearful anger.
In The Wizard of Oz, the conflicting elements within Dorothy’s psyche are personified in the good and bad witches, the wizard, lion, tin man and scarecrow. In Where the Wild Things Are, the roles of good parent, bad parent, good child and bad child swirl around uncomfortably and unpredictably within each character.
If there is any resolution to the film, it is that Max can only survive into adulthood if his identity fractures into countless mutually supporting identities, just as the fragile twigs of the forest weave together to form the whole of the wild things’ homes.