Where the Wild Things Are: The Best Short Film of 2009

November 4, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 13 3 min read

If I had any sway in Hollywood, which I don’t, I would currently be urging Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers and the brass at Warner Bros. to begin an aggressive Oscar campaign for Where the Wild Things Are. But not for the actual film, no way (maybe cinematography). I’m talking about the trailer. I know, I know. Trailers can’t win Oscars, much less be nominated. But what if it wasn’t submitted as a “trailer,” but as a “short film?” A really short film. A film that run less than two and a half minutes in length. Why not?

I hate to say it, but the film left me cold for the most part. However the trailer was and remains to be a revelation. I remember sitting in the theater and seeing it the way I remember seeing full-length films. It all begins so quietly, forest sounds and footsteps. We see Max, in his famous wolf suit, being carried by one of the Wild Things. As if to prepare the audience for the experience that is to come, the Wild Thing says to Max “I really want to show you something.”

In the remaining 90 or so seconds we learn that Max is a lonely child, he runs away from home, takes a boat over rough seas to an island full of Wild Things and has many adventures. That is the book. The pace of the trailer speeds up, emphasized by the brilliant musical backdrop Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”. I was so hoping to hear this song in the finished version, but that didn’t happen. As we near the end, nearly every character is running, playing and behaving like real children behave. Spike Jonze says that this is a film about childhood, not necessarily a film for children. If he is talking about the trailer, he is absolutely right.

One of the main criticisms of the film has been the argument that there simply wasn’t enough content in the source material to warrant a feature film. After seeing the film, I spent the better part of two weeks trying desperately to find some way to disagree. But I can’t.

Part of this could be attributed to the ridiculously high expectations I brought with me into that theater. What was I really expecting, some sort of transformational experience? Yep. Call me crazy, but I was absolutely certain that I would have some sort of epiphany by the time the end credits were rolling. Why? That damn trailer.

I won’t say that I was depressed about the overall film experience. But then again, I can’t think of any other accurate way to express how I felt. A few days ago, for reasons I can’t explain, I felt the urge to see the trailer again. There have been several versions since that first one, some edited differently, some made for television. It took a few minutes to find the original cut. But when I watched it again, I realized that I had no reason to be depressed. Sure, the film was a letdown, but I didn’t need it. The experience I longed for was fully contained in this little gem. The emotions, the energy, the music, it was all there. The same way a tight little pop song can be more effective and memorable than a lengthy concept album, this trailer captured the spirit of Maurice Sendak’s book in its entirety.

I don’t regret my Where the Wild Things Are experience in any way. I’ve come to think of the full-length film the way I think of those indulgent overlong director’s cuts that always seem to show up on DVD. I know what the real film is and it doesn’t bother me at all. I feel bad for Spike Jonze, but I don’t blame him. He set out to make something great, and in a roundabout way, he has. He has created one of the best (and certainly most expensive) short films in the history of cinema. And I, for one, am thankful.

See Also: The Savages: Where The Wild Things Are, Revisited

is an author and editor. He has written for publications including Publishers Weekly, Poets & Writers and GOOD, among others. His latest book is The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Jeff lives with his wife in Oklahoma.


  1. Wow, my sentiments exactly. I was really disappointed by “Wake Up” being left out of the soundtrack. Could you imagine how amazing that ending would have been with that song booming? I wish directors would be more cognicant of the impression of the trailer on the audience and its ability to shape expectations. I know that most of the time directors aren’t even involved in trailer producing and this seems to be an oversight of movie storytelling. Paranormal activity, with all thats being said about it, did/is doing a really good job of crafting the story from the beginning, instead of just making a movie and then handing it off to the marketing department to garner the eyeballs.

  2. Jonze has done this before, too…the Adaptation trailer, to the tune of “Under Pressure,” basically made me cry the first time I saw it. (Not sure if that particular cut’s floating around out there, but it must be…this is the Internet, right?

  3. I disagree, actually, and not because I didn’t enjoy the trailer. To me, the movie — the full-length version — perfectly captured what it is to be a nine-year-old boy. Jonze and Eggers got inside Max’s head and explored it in fresh ways that Sendak couldn’t possibly have done (or wanted to have done) in his brilliant book.

    Everyone keeps saying that the screenplay was weak and the story thin — I really didn’t see it that way. If you imagine it as a day in the life of Max, it holds together as a compelling movie: the betrayal he feels from his sister and her friends or his mom and her boyfriend, the comfort he gets from his intimate routines with his mother and from creating worlds in his bedroom, the ways his mind blurs the lines between reality and dream (and helps the viewer do the same), the ways he learns that his wildest ideas will always fall at least a little short in reality — I can’t name another movie that so accurately and completely captures any or all of that.

    ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ was easily one of my favorite movies of the year. I would be disappointed if it didn’t garner nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography.

  4. I absolutely agree with Josh. Saw the movie yesterday without any expectations–hadn’t seen the trailer. It was not the book I read to my god-daughters decades ago. I was so moved, I can hardly say just how moved I was. The wild things were so astonishing, their eyes, of course, and their voices, but their body language. I kept thinking: why can’t we all just get along? When they threw themselves into a pack I wished I were there right in the middle of that mass of bodies. In a million years I never expected to see the emotions play out as they did among the wild things: pettiness, jealousy, rage, compassion, reconciliation and forgiveness. Max could not save them from their natures. He was just a little boy and wanted to be king, but didn’t realize the burden. I adored this movie (have to say I adore a lot of movies but I particularly adored this one).

  5. “I disagree, actually, and not because I didn’t enjoy the trailer. To me, the movie — the full-length version — perfectly captured what it is to be a nine-year-old boy”

    As a former 9 year old boy, I’m gonna call BS on this. Being a 9 year old doesn’t mean hanging around with imaginary mopey emo monsters. That’s what being a mid-30s hipster pretending to be a 9 year old boy means.

  6. Do we get to have mini-conversations here? Comment 7 is not directed at me, but want to say: Never been a 9 year old boy myself, and never been a mid-30s hipster, either, even decades ago when I was in my mid-30s. How come that latter description feels ugly and denigrating? Am I mis-reading?

    Can’t get the movie out of my head. Carrying it around with me all day. Mopey monsters, well, to each their own opinion. My take was deep sadness or dismay or disappointment to their core (diff adjectives for diff wild things), in serious need of throwing themselves into communal entwinement and needing a catalyst to make it happen. I claim no objectivity whatsoever.

    Dave Eggers was co-writer of the movie.

  7. I have to disagree entirely with Jeff Martin’ s comments. Spike Jonze accurately states that the film is about childhood, but not necessarily for children. Part of the reason that this is true is because most children (and many adults) lack the ability and insight to see themselves from an external perspective. The movie is touching and beautiful, but also frightening because every moment we are concerned about Max’s safety. The way Max and the creatures play is so dangerous and violent, although their intent is in no way malicious. Yet, realistically, children do play this way, with so little thought to the consequences and always within inches of causing serious damages to one another.

    The other main point of the movie is that Max is trying to be a child, but he lives in a world where everyone else is older than he is. Like a child, he becomes upset when everyone around him isn’t focusing on him or behaving the way he would want them to, but the world he envisions isn’t the way we actually function. He’s thoughtless, selfish, and bratty, and he finally sees his own behavior for what it is when the creatures put all of their trust in him and expect him to bring their fantasy world to life. Max is forced to grow, which is framed as a sad event in this film. I think that many of the people who watch this movie and don’t get it were kids who were just like Max, less aware and considerate of everyone around them and always expecting the world to center around him. In fact, many of those people probably haven’t changed.

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