Is 'Where the Wild Things Are' For Kids or Adults?

The adaptation of a classic children's book has commentators arguing about what makes for age-appropriate art

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Movie analysts are predicting a big box-office haul for "Where the Wild Things Are" this weekend--a safe bet considering that the justly-praised children's picture-book on which it's based has been a perennial bestseller. But the movie's dark tone has many reviewers asking whether the long, artsy adaptation is too scary, too boring, or simply too mature for a young audience.


  • Shatters Innocence The Atlantic's own Alyssa Rosenberg accuses the the film of going heavy on violence and terror, but says that it's the level of emotional ambiguity that ends up challenging developing minds the most: "There’s no question that Where the Wild Things Are is often quite frightening…But it’s also a movie that children might find unsettling as much for the knotty questions the characters face, as for any of its special effects." Her piece goes on to say that "Wild Things" is far from a rarity in this regard, as several other children's films this year offer similarly complex and weighty messages.
  • Designed to Be Dark Slate's Jack Schafer takes issue with "Wild Things" author Maurice Sendak's complaints that his book was unjustly and overly-criticized by a psychologist for it's potentially disturbing messages. He quotes Sendak's own words to prove the book was designed with fear in mind:  "While it is true that Where the Wild Things Are caused a cultural rumpus when it was published, that was precisely Sendak's intention. 'I wanted the wild things to be frightening,' he said in the 1980 book The Art of Maurice Sendak. His appetite for controversy is clear from the tone and substance of the acceptance speech he gave when he accepted the Caldecott Medal." Schafer advises the grouchy-author to thank his critics for drawing more attention to his work.
  • That's A Good Thing Newsweek's Andrew Romano argues that "Wild Things" premature anti-authoritarian bent is actually perfect for kids, contrary to reports by the media that it is too frightening or abstract: "But what if that intensity, that asymmetry, is exactly why kids should see Wild Things? What if the very thing that makes the movie "controversial" is also what makes it necessary, now more than ever?"especially in "age of obedience" and hyper-observant parenting like ours. He also views places the film in the context of a larger trend of dark children's books getting adapted into even darker films. The Guardian's Allison Flood agrees, advising parents to embrace scary children's books not only because they help teach children language skills, but also because they cultivate lifelong creativity. As she writes: "Our bedtime stories went on long after we could read ourselves, taking us further up and further in to the strange worlds of fiction. Roald Dahl's The Witches had to be hidden at the top of the cupboard because it frightened me so much (blue spit and no toes – yuck), and, shamefully, I seem to recall the Gollum parts of The Hobbit ('What has it got in its pocketless?') being read aloud to me when I was 10, because I was too scared to read them alone."


  • Way Too Dull At The Awl, Paul Friedman Phillips says that once the movie began testing his attention span and his longstanding devotion to the book, he realized that there was no hope of it playing well with a younger audience: "My boys—pretty much the age of the boy in the movie, Max, played by Max Records—would find no terror in this movie. They’d be bored to death and ask to split after an hour…I understand that recalling your childhood is everyone’s God-given right, and that those involved had tough times before adulthood arrived, but, for a movie that seeks to represent the experience of being a kid, this movie is tone deaf."
  • Can't Keep Up With Kids Today Lavishing even-more praise on the source-material, famed film-critic Roger Ebert is pleased to report that the look and feel of the characters has been accurately captured in the movie. However, he also found himself bored in various parts, and is doubtful today's children have the patience for such artistic nuance: "The film will play better for older audiences remembering a much-loved book from childhood, and not as well with kids who have been trained on slam-bam action animation."


  • Hipster-Magnet In the New York Times, Saki Knafo provides an exhaustive chronicle of the film's development, noticing that the movie has taken on an especially contemporary and trendy sheen unlikely to resonate with children: “'Where the Wild Things Are' seems sure to appeal to the sensibilities of a certain cohort of urban young adults — the type who read comic-book novels and wear skateboard sneakers…Finding an audience beyond that demographic, though, may well pose a challenge to Warner’s marketing department," he explains.
  • Overtly-Nostalgic Stephanie Zacharek also drops a hipster reference at Salon, saying that the movie is a "shoe-gazing exercise" only applicable to "self-absorbed," reflective adults who pine for their youth. Kids, she says, are both more authentic are wiser than that: "'Where the Wild Things Are' is filled with the aggressively childlike sense of wonder that only adults can feel…In other words, children may be too sophisticated -- too busy being actual children.."
  • Psychologically Unfit Slate's Dana Stevens admits she didn't like the idea of the film from the get-go, but gives it props for being so innovative and ambitious. At the same time, she can't help but come down on the movie for spending too much time on adult insecurities:  "Assigning each wild thing his or her own demons, and turning the story into a chronicle of the beasts' power struggles and hurt feelings, drains the energy out of the story we really care about: Max's journey to a mysterious place that's both outside and inside—and how he finds his way back home again."


  • Salon's Andrew O'Hehir assembles and explains his picks for the top 10 "Kids' movies that aren't for kids." As he puts it "I'm talking about movies that either accidentally or deliberately embody a fundamentally adult understanding of the world, an ironic or tragic or frankly frightening picture of life that will either terrify the youngest viewers or sail right over their heads."
  • Time also puts together a nice slide show of other classic children's books adapted into film.
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