Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are: Appropriate for Children?

Tell [children] anything you want, as long as it’s true.”

-Maurice Sendak

Where The Wild Things Are
was one of the most anticipated children's movies of the last few years--or was it? The film adaptation of the 1963 classic picture book by Maurice Sendak features a stellar cast, and was directed by one of the most accomplished young directors in Hollywood. The film topped the box office on it's opening weekend, bringing in $32.5 million dollars. While the impressive box office numbers demonstrate that it was obviously a highly anticipated film, they also demonstrate that it was not a particularly anticipated children's movie. On opening weekend, parents with children accounted for only 27% of tickets sold. This likely puts the number of children viewers at somewhere between 10-15%. Given that the film was based on a beloved picture book, these numbers seem curious.

There are many potential reasons why the viewership numbers amongst children was so low. The most obvious reason is that it is not a convention children's movie. The film was directed by Spike Jonze, who is know primarily for his masterful collaborations with experimental screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. No one who has seen Being John Malkovich, or Adaptation would have expected anything conventional from him. Jonze himself noted that the movie was meant primarily to be a film about childhood, rather than a conventional children's movie. Combine this with the fact that the popularity of the book likely peaked decades ago, and you have some very plausible reasons why the film was so popular among adults relative to children.

While the first explanation likely explains some of the discrepancy, there is another major reason why many parents shied away from the film. Despite the fact that the book is recommended for children between the ages of 4-8, the MPAA decided to slap the film with a PG rating. They cited adult language, and adult situations to justify the rating. I do not recall any inappropriate language, though one blogger pointed out that the word 'hell' was used twice, and the word 'damn' was used at least once. I have no idea what the MPAA thinks constitutes an adult situation in the film. Perhaps the implication that the child's mother is divorced, or the fact that he talks back to his mother? There may have been some other detail I missed, but these minor details should not be enough to punish the film with a PG rating. The same type of problem emerged in the publishing of the book. The publishers insisted that Sendak replace the word 'hot' with 'warm' when describing the child's dinner. In the end, sanity prevailed, and Sendak's original wording was maintained. Sendak even had a hard time getting librarians to stock the book, since many deemed it inappropriate for children

In addition to the MPAA issue, the movie also suffered from the musings of the author of the book. Maurice Sendak, who worked closely with Spike Jones and David Eggers on the screenplay, has been outspoken on the issue of whether the film would be appropriate for children. In a Newsweek interview, Sendak was asked what he would tell parents who were concerned that the movie would be too frightening for their children. His response was that he would tell them to go to hell. Needless to say, the media jumped all over that quote. To be fair, it was a rude response. Given that he's been plagued by well intentioned sensors for his whole career, it is hard to blame him for his curtness.

Though the MPAA and Maurice Sendak both likely damaged the prospects of the film, the film fell prey to a much more troubling problem. As Sendak was trying to get across in the Newsweek interview, many parents coddle their children far too much. He pointed out that he "saw the most horrendous movies that were unfit for child's eyes. So what? I managed to survive." He added that "grown-ups are afraid for children. It's not children who are afraid." This seems to be the crux of the problem. Many parents have viewed horrible things in their lifetimes, and they want to prevent the same from happening to their children. The trouble is that shielding children entirely from the realities of life leaves them unprepared for when life gets difficult. This attitude may well be partially responsible for the high self reported rates of depression amongst young people.

Contrary to several anti-intellectual reviewers, Where The Wild Things Are is not "movie made by, and for, members of a generation who feel it's unfair to have to grow up." The film is at once a reflection on the joys and sorrows of childhood, and an appropriate modern fairy tale. It is ironic that most people alive today grew up in generations where children's stories consisted of dark cautionary tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin. They seemed to turn out alright. Rather than painting an unnecessarily bleak picture of life, the film had several important messages. One such theme is the danger of hierarchies. The Utopian world that Max tries to create inevitably crumbles. He can't keep the sadness out. In an interview with PBS, Sendak said that children "have to know it's possible things are bad, but they are surrounded by people who love them and will protect them." If that's not a child appropriate theme, I don't know what is.


  1. A coupl of months ago I was talking to my girlfriend's 5 year old cousin. She was excited about halloween (in August) and I asked her if she liked Nightmare Before Christmas. She had never seen it so I showed her some clips on YouTube. She loved it and asked her mom if she could rent it. Her mom said no because it would be too scary.

    I pointed out that she had basically already watched a third of the movie through YouTube clips (including a scene that Santa gets tortured) and she doesn't seemed scared. The mother then agreed to rent the movie.

    I don't think we give children enough credit. They know the difference between reality and the fantastical. If they didn't they couldn't possibly function in school or society. As adults we don't really remember what it was like to be children, and so we tend to err on the side of over caution. (If I was a little anxious about the Santa clip)