Unlike some, I’ve never thought of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are as escapist fare. In fact, it’s always produced quite a bit of anxiety for me: parents who punish for things as harmless as chasing the cat and saying “I’ll eat you up” to your mother; visiting a place where the creatures do exactly what they’re told to do; even the wild rumpus was ambiguous in that its joy was completely confined to the moment of the rumpus and didn’t carry over into the rest of the story. I’ve also never really thought of it as a book about escape, since when Max gets back to his room, everything is the same as when he left, and his food’s still warm — despite his epic journey he has escaped his existence for just a few minutes. The emotional timbre of the story is as muted and melancholic as its accompanying art.
The movie provides a contemporary back story but retains the book’s affective register: the compassionate, cool, hip, hot single mother who is too tolerant to actually send Max to his room without supper, and the monsters, who aren’t scary ogres but gloomy characters who openly express their depression and dissatisfaction and who aren’t as quick to capitulate to Max’s commands. While Sendak’s book was written when expressions and feelings were more strictly controlled and authority was more rigid, the movie is about a time when everyone talks about their feelings and hierarchies aren’t as sharp. But despite these advances, melancholy pervades. Neither cool moms nor leveled hierarchies nor emotional honesty have been enough to overcome the sadness.