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Commentary: 'Where the Wild Things Are' is scary, but so is life

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
Navarrette: "Where the Wild Things Are" requires guidance.
Navarrette: "Where the Wild Things Are" requires guidance.
  • Author says "Where the Wild Things Are" is more about childhood than a kids' movie
  • Navarrette found film boring, but says important thing was that his daughter loved it
  • Navarrette: Film is scary at points, but many American parents are overreacting
  • Author remembers the days when parents weren't constantly worried about kids
  • Children's Books
  • Parenting
  • Movies

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to Read his column here.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Maurice Sendak is my king.

No, not because Sendak, in 1963, turned 10 sentences into a children's classic. "Where the Wild Things Are" tells the tale of a boy named Max who runs away from home and sails off to an island where the fantastical creatures that live there proclaim him their king. And not because the film version of that book, directed by the brilliantly edgy Spike Jonze and co-written by Dave Eggers, took the No. 1 spot at the box office last weekend with $32.5 million.

Interestingly, this is less of a children's movie than a movie about childhood. Moviegoers 18 and over accounted for 43 percent of the audience while parents with children made up just 27 percent, according to distributor Warner Bros.

I don't care about any of that. I'm probably the only member of Generation X who never read the book. For what it's worth, my wife and I did take our 4½-year-old daughter to the movie last weekend, and I thought it was boring. But the important thing is that my little girl loved it. 'Wild Things' okay for my kids.

Did you catch that? All Americans need to take a deep breath and repeat after me: Not everything has to be about you. Sometimes you take your child to a movie, and, if you don't like it, you keep your mouth shut and enjoy the popcorn.

In the film, Max acts out in ugly and violent ways, and winds up shouting at and biting his mother before running away from home. Once on the island, the monsters Max encounters are moody, clingy, and occasionally violent. You know, like Max.

All week, I've been reading about how many parents are wringing their hands over the movie, worried that it is too scary, too gloomy, too violent and too apt to inspire bad behavior in children. One father reports that his daughter saw the movie and then promptly came home and bit her mother. A lot of adults fell asleep

Yep, the movie's definitely to blame for that -- better a bad movie than bad parenting.

I don't think we've done my daughter irreparable harm by exposing her to the Wild Things. I'm not losing any sleep over it, and -- to prove it -- my wife informs me that I dozed off for a few minutes in the theater.

No, the reason that the 81-year-old Sendak is my king is because of what he said during a recent Newsweek interview that was intended to promote the film but no doubt wound up offending parents all over the country. It went like this:

Reporter: "What do you say to parents who think the Wild Things film may be too scary?"

Sendak: "I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate."

Reporter: "Because kids can handle it?"

Sendak: "If they can't handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered."

Sendak: "This concentration on kids being scared, as though we as adults can't be scared. Of course we're scared. I'm scared of watching a TV show about vampires. I can't fall asleep. It never stops. We're grown-ups; we know better, but we're afraid."

Reporter: "Why is that important in art?"

Sendak: "Because it's truth. You don't want to do something that's all terrifying. I saw the most horrendous movies that were unfit for child's eyes. So what? I managed to survive."

Remember, this guy is 81 years old. I miss the way people used to be. A couple of generations ago, parents didn't worry about whether kids were happy all the time or comfortable 24/7 or wrapped in protective coating. Of course, they didn't want their children hurt. But it's hard to imagine they would have spent much time and effort trying to keep kids from being scared.

Quite the contrary, they used to tell them scary stories at bedtime or on camping trips -- usually the kind intended to frighten little ones into behaving correctly. "And then one day, all the kids who didn't listen to their mommies and daddies just disappeared. ..."

I get it. We really, really, really like our children. In fact, we love our children and we think they're the most precious little darlings ever created, and so naturally we want to protect them. And we should protect them from some things -- predators, disease, abuse, etc. But we shouldn't protect them from all things. And we certainly can't protect them from life. And part of life is getting scared now and then. In time, we learn to separate reality from fantasy.

And yet, while one infamous set of parents could face criminal charges for pretending their son was in a balloon, other parents think nothing of keeping their kids in a bubble.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.