Every night while I was growing up ended just the same. "Mommy loves you, Daddy loves you, and Jesus loves you most of all," my mom would say as she tucked me into bed. The ritual was a reminder, enforced through years of repetition, that no matter how far I ventured out into the world, which can be scary, cold, and unloving, I would always have a safe place with the people who love me and a God who loves me more. This is such an important lesson; children need to know that no matter what happens "out there," they are loved. Love doesn't make problems go away, but it grounds us in something greater than ourselves and our problems.
Most children's movies emphasize can-do messages: You can do anything you want if you believe in yourself! Go out and have an adventure! And then along came Where the Wild Things Are.
Perhaps you've heard of it? In production for nearly 10 years, it was last weekend's highest-grossing film. It's also been the source of much controversy, particularly over whether the children's movie is even appropriate for children.
When a Newsweek reporter asked Maurice Sendak how he would respond to parents who might ask if the adaptation of his book is too scary for children, he replied, "I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate."
But what we allow our children to watch is important. And many children will want to see this movie; the trailer set the hype machine in motion months ago (the first time I saw it, I cried). The movie has been called too philosophical, too postmodern, too psychological, and too bleak for children. Perhaps we think children need something easy to digest. But that is the true genius of the original book, and of great children's literature: It does not talk down to children or their ability to understand and process, whether consciously or subconsciously, the complexities of their own lives.
Critics of the film say the movie has departed from its source material, which includes only 10 sentences. Yes, the movie does deal with some pretty heavy ideas: loneliness, division, jealousy, anger, fear, and life-changing love. But all of these are in the book, if you read (and look) closely enough. There's a reason Sendak's original has lasted so long. Underneath the simple story lie complex truths easily identifiable to any reader who has dealt with the pains of growing up. And as with anything that depicts real truth, it also reflects back some pretty powerful Christian themes.
Yes, the movie creates some pretty elaborate stories for the "wild things," but these are nothing more than projections of Max's own internal conflicts and his confusing relationships with his absent father, dating mother, and preoccupied sister. Through his time with the wild things, Max learns to better understand and accept his place in the real world. Though this segment of the book has no words—only beautiful, emotive illustrations—it's clear that something meaningful takes place during Max's journey to "where the wild things are." This is the essential story of growing up; realizing there is a reality beyond yourself that both affects you and is affected by you. I may face a different set of challenges now than I did when I was Max's age, but they are motivated by the same fears and emotions. At times I still cry out to be respected and heard, I fear isolation and loneliness, and I struggle to figure out how to respond when my needs aren't being met. It would certainly do me good to get in touch with my own "wild things."
All this existential pondering may be too intense for some kids. But kids' emotions are intense. And every day they are faced with realities too intense for them or anyone: divorce, loneliness, isolation, an increasingly discouraging view of the world as they awaken to the reality that this is not a perfect, or even fair, place. Early in the film we see Max's science teacher explaining that someday the sun will die, but the students needn't worry because long before that, the human race will have snuffed itself out by some cause or another: famine, war, global warming. Is this too much information for a 9-year-old? Maybe. But 9-year-olds are probably hearing it, and without an outlet to process this information. I remember being confronted with this same information at exactly Max's age, as well as the fear it instilled for many years. That Max can't handle this information is exactly the point; he later shouts it at one of the wild things in order to assert his power, while really exhibiting his own fear and insecurity. He just wants someone to assure him it will be okay, that this knowledge isn't, literally, the end of the world.
This may sound bleak, and for much of the movie, it is. But in the end, Max is able to return home, where he sees his mother's love in a new way. No matter how far he strays, Max can return to a mother who will love him beyond what he deserves, even offering the hot dinner previously revoked. Anger is real, and particularly scary for children who do not know how to process it. But in the end, it is not Max's anger that is rewarded; Max realizes he is still lonely, that his attempts to safeguard himself (building a fort to keep out the bad things, putting down others, destroying things for his own pleasure) have done nothing to make him happy. In the book, as well as the movie: "The king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all."
As Tyler Huckabee writes at Relevant, "Whatever Max might not understand about his mother's rules, he trusts her love." At its core, Wild Things is a meditation on sin and brokenness and the unconditional, irresistible love that pulls us back home. And that is something we all need to hear, whether we're 8 or 88.
Have you seen the movie? What did you think? Is it appropriate for children? How can we better prepare children who will see this movie to understand and appreciate what is going on?