Where the Wild Things Are. Dir. Spike Jonze. Warner Bros. 2009.

In Spike Jonze’s 2009 film Where the Wild Things Are, wildness reigns. Max, a ‘wild’ young boy with an active imagination, is able to connect with his dog but has difficulty doing so with other people, including his mother and sister. Upset that his mother is paying more attention to her new boyfriend, Max puts on his wolf costume and throws a tantrum, biting his mother before running away. He travels across the sea to a world inhabited by large wild beasts who make him their king. Together they play, build and fight but eventually the ‘Wild Things’ realise Max cannot fulfil his promise to make them happy all the time and Max recognises the difficulties of being head of a family. He says goodbye to the Wild Things, howling at them as he sails away, and returns home.

Based on Maurice Sendak’s 400-word children’s story of the same name, WTWTA’s plot is very basic, yet Jonze refused to make his film ‘more family-friendly’ [1] in any other respects. Rather than idealising family activities, Jonze disrupts them – Max’s attempts at familial play see his sister’s friends smashing his igloo as she watches and his mother too busy with work to help with his fort. It is no wonder, then, that Max is initially thrilled to join the liberating world of the Wild Things, play mud wars and sleep together in a big pile in a primal, natural space beyond civilization, yet this freedom is undercut with underlying dangers. As king, Max has to keep the ‘family’ of the Wild Things together, and their play becomes increasingly violent, with the BBFC citing how ‘the creatures’ rough games get a little out of hand’ [2] as a reason for its PG certificate (unusual for most films of this genre), and the consequences of one such game lead to Max’s decision to return home. Thus, both the human and animal worlds are problematised in a more subtle, complex manner than usually depicted in family films, and WTWTA functions as a form of bildungsroman, which charts Max’s journey from wild, uncaring and free childhood to a more empathetic adult state.

This transition is constantly linked to animals, with the centrality of the relationship between the animal and the child made apparent from the opening credits, which appear as though drawn on by a child to turn them into animals. The first shot of the film is of Max’s dog running down the stairs, followed immediately by the little boy in his wolf romper suit growling, rolling and crawling after it in an animalistic manner. The dog’s barking is loud and frantic, and it is unclear whether Max’s rough actions are causing it to express excitement or distress. This dichotomy between playfulness and aggression is explored throughout the film, with attempts at play both in the human world and that of the Wild Things often ending in pain and upset, suggesting a link between the violent world of the animal kingdom and childhood.

Appearances also highlight the relationship between the two. Max spends most of the film in his wolf outfit, which has a mimetic effect on his actions. While wearing it at home, he stands on the table, demands ‘Woman, where is my food?’ then when struggling to get away bites his mother, showing a child’s understanding of animal behaviours – he reacts how he thinks a wolf would. The hood is key to this; Max wears it for the first half of the film, leaves it down after telling KW about his family, then pulls it up again during the mud fight, suggesting the hood is connected to whether he is identifying more with his ‘human’ or ‘animal’ side. The costume itself is an exaggerated representation of a wolf (including big horns, stick-out whiskers and a bushy tail), and similarly the Wild Things all have exaggerated animal features like horns, tails and beaks, but these are juxtaposed with some recognisably human feature on each, such as KW’s ears and Ira’s nose. This implies that the Wild Things are functioning as hybrids of human and animal, combining aspects of both, unlike Max who is simply wearing the exterior of an animal. Because his actions are ultimately performative, Max cannot live permanently among the Wild Things as they begin to recognise his true nature, with Douglas finally declaring that, ‘He’s just a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king.’

Yet there is still a connection between Max and the Wild Things, particularly Carol. Both have tantrums with destructive results (Max wrecking his sister’s room is paralleled in Carol smashing his miniature town), and often communicate in howls and animal cries. This merging of the child’s voice with natural sounds is reflected in WTWTA’s soundtrack which uses ‘tribal energy’ and ‘feral growls’ to capture the ‘emotions that typify childhood — such as joy, fear and anger’ [3], suggesting a correlation in the way animals and children communicate their feelings. In some tracks, the playful, folk-influenced sounds suggest a unity but when Carol and Max’s relationship breaks down animal cries and screams are utilised to reflect the inherent wildness and danger of the Wild Things. This music overlays the chase sequence, where the use of a handheld camera following Max as he runs away highlights his smallness and vulnerability, while the shift to a shot from his point of view looking back as Carol crashes through the undergrowth makes him seem savage and bestial.

In WTWTA, animals are mostly represented through the Wild Things. Like in animated films, their exaggerated, unrealistic appearance means they function more as symbols than literal animals, but whilst Wells indicates how ‘one of the intrinsic qualities of animation is its illusionism and resistance to modes of realism’ [4], by choosing to make his film live-action instead Jonze enables the Wild Things to be heightened imaginative creations whilst still having a very real and physical presence. They tower over Max, an interesting twist on the usual narrative where animals are smaller than humans, which emphasises how large the world seems to a child but also, as Jonze states, makes it ‘more dangerous and… more exciting’ [5]. Max rarely shows any fear of them despite their size, and the suits give the Wild Things a unique appearance which caused critics to describe them as ‘vast Muppety creatures’, ‘talking animal-giants’ [6], ‘uncanny creations’ [7], ‘monstrous-yet-cuddly’ and ‘like oversized cuddly toys’ [8]. This final analogy captures the fantastical nature of the Wild Things, seen when sand pours out of Douglas’ ripped-off arm like stuffing, but also connects them more closely with the world of the child, reminiscent of the toys glimpsed in Max’s bedroom fort early in the film.

Yet this description belies their sometimes violent, often childish actions. Co-writer Dave Eggers said that most children in films are ‘de-fanged. They have no wildness’ [9], and as symbolic hybrids, the Wild Things are able to represent the wildness inherent in both animals and children. They follow playground politics over the rules of civilisation, act on impulses and instincts, and move unpredictably between affection and aggression. While Max identifies with this completely at the beginning of the film, over its course he grows into a more mature adolescence where he is able to return home and recognise his mother as a fallible human being. Paradoxically, he has learned of civilisation by living among Wild Things, though by barking at a dog on the street as he runs home Jonze shows how Max’s wild side has not been completely lost, simply tempered enough to allow him to re-enter human society.

Such a journey connects WTWTA to Disney’s 1967 film The Jungle Book, also based on a children’s book, which depicts a child living among animals, though Mowgli was raised from birth whereas Max consciously leaves home to live with the Wild Things. Kidd calls this genre ‘feral tales’ and believes they emerged ‘during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a major symbolic discourse about human and cultural development, childhood, the wildness of boys, and the path to manhood’ [10] and WTWTA engages with these same ideas in a twenty-first century setting, using darker themes and a more subtle, nuanced depiction of this transition. Similarly, Born Free (1966) deals with ideas of wildness and civilisation, though as a traditional family film it does so in a more sentimental, simplistic way. By re-working these dynamics, Jonze complicates conventional representations of animals in family films, using both real animals and fictionalised hybrids to highlight the connection between the worlds of the child and the animal, and suggest how one can learn from the other.

Further Reading

Trailer for the film:

Animation test from when Disney intended to do a fully animated version of the story:

Interview with Spike Jonze: https://www.empireonline.com/interviews/interview.asp?IID=989

Product description of Dave Eggers’ novelisation of the film: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wild-Things-Dave-Eggers/dp/014103713X

Spike Jonze profile from The Observer: https://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2009/dec/06/spike-jonze-observer-profile

Mark Kermode reviewing the film, particularly discussing how the film works for adults and children and the representation of ‘wildness’:


Bradshaw, Peter, ‘Where the Wild Things Are Film Review’, The Guardian, 11 December 2009, p. 8

British Board of Film Classification https://www.bbfc.co.uk/releases/where-wild-things-are-2009-0#bbfcinsight [accessed 11 April 2013]

Eggers, Dave and Jonze, Spike, ‘Desperately Seeking Maurice Sendak’, The Guardian, 23 November 2009, p. 17

Fletcher, Rose, Total Film Magazine, 3 December 2009 https://www.totalfilm.com/reviews/cinema/where-the-wild-things-are [accessed 11 April 2013]

Graydon, Danny, Empire Magazine https://www.empireonline.com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?SID=10229 [accessed 11 April 2013]

Haddon, Cole, ‘Interview: Director Spike Jonze Talks Where the Wild Things Are’, Film.com https://www.film.com/uncategorized/interview-director-spike-jonze-talks-where-the-wild-things-are [accessed 11 April 2013]

Jolin, Dan, Empire Magazine https://www.empireonline.com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?DVDID=118363 [accessed 11 April 2013]

Rose, Steve, ‘Spike Jonze: “I’m never going to compromise”’, The Guardian, 5 December 2009, p. 6

Wells, Paul, The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture (London: Rutgers University Press, 2008), p. 48

[1] Steve Rose, ‘Spike Jonze: “I’m never going to compromise”’, The Guardian, 5 December 2009, p. 6.

[2] British Board of Film Classification https://www.bbfc.co.uk/releases/where-wild-things-are-2009-0#bbfcinsight [accessed 11 April 2013]

[3] Danny Graydon, Empire Magazine https://www.empireonline.com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?SID=10229 [accessed 11 April 2013]

[4] Paul Wells, The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture (London: Rutgers University Press, 2008), p. 48.

[5] Cole Haddon, ‘Interview: Director Spike Jonze Talks Where the Wild Things Are’, Film.com https://www.film.com/uncategorized/interview-director-spike-jonze-talks-where-the-wild-things-are [accessed 11 April 2013]

[6] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Where the Wild Things Are Film Review’, The Guardian, 11 December 2009, p. 8.

[7] Rose Fletcher, Total Film Magazine, 3 December 2009 https://www.totalfilm.com/reviews/cinema/where-the-wild-things-are [accessed 11 April 2013]

[8] Dan Jolin, Empire Magazine https://www.empireonline.com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?DVDID=118363 [accessed 11 April 2013]

[9] Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, ‘Desperately Seeking Maurice Sendak’, The Guardian, 23 November 2009, p. 17.

[10] Ellen Brinks, ‘Uncovering the Child in Timothy Treadwell’s Feral Tale’, The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 32, Iss. 3 (Sept 2008), 304-324.