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Posted at 8:30 AM ET, 10/17/2009

Maurice Sendak Day: From Page to Screen, Appreciating the 'Wild Things' Spirit

By Michael Cavna

Some of the greatest authors ever to write for children have a telling trait in common: They do not sugarcoat childhood. Rather, childhood is a wild thing to be stripped of saccharine sentiment and told plain and straight and laced with pain.

Charles M. Schulz famously plumbed the cruelty among children from the get-go in "Peanuts," with the first strip's line: "Good ol' Charlie I hate him!" Ted Geisel wrote of all manner of unvarnished affairs in his "Dr. Seuss" books, from corporate greed to "big brother" McCarthyism to even the falsely robed confidence men who weren't to be trusted by Who-ville's bright-eyed tots.

In the company of such brilliant straight-talkers (and with a debt to the Brothers Grimm) firmly belongs Maurice Sendak, who in the new HBO documentary "Tell Them Anything You Want" says: "I don't believe in children. I don't believe in childhood." To Sendak, those are false demarcations that lead, among other things, to overprotecting our tykes. The famed children's book author adds, in the passage that inspires the title: "Tell them anything you want. Just tell 'em if it's true."

At 81, Sendak is not an avuncular Mister Rogers figure. One of the world's great book illustrators refuses to paint himself in rosy tones. And he may have a new film out this weekend -- the Spike Jonze-directed and -adapted version of Sendak's 1963 classic "Where the Wild Things Are" -- but he does not seem to beam sweetly over its release, except to appreciate that Jonze captured his work's "peculiar" nature. His own curmudgeonly personality, in other words, lacks that same sugar coat.

Perhaps that's one of the true secrets of Sendak's six decades of popularity and success: His works -- like the better works of Schulz and Seuss -- capture the creator's best attempt at personal honesty. Late each year, for example, Linus Van Pelt gives his impassioned "that's what Christmas is all about" soliloquy, quoting from the Book of Luke as Schulz himself might have to puncture commercialization. Each year, innocents combat a Grinch and a Kangaroo and those Wickersham Brothers, revealing social critiques that were also reflected in Geisel's political cartoons. And Sendak -- whose book "In the Kitchen" references the Holocaust -- wanted children to be exposed to a true sense of danger, in all its toothy, hairy, snarling reality.

And for that, the wild rumpus springs eternal.

Today, Comic Riffs pays tribute to this spirit of Sendak with some of our favorite clips:

THE CGI EXPERIMENT: A good decade before John Lasseter would unveil "Toy Story" to the world, the future Pixar founder was experimenting on a version of "Where the Wild Things Are" while with Disney. What's telling and compelling here is how Lasseter and crew were attempting this: By rendering the backgrounds in early CGI but picturing the characters in classic rounded-feature Disney style. (Note: At about the 1:25 mark in this clip, you see how the early '80s test footage came together visually.)

IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN: The great Sendak tale that (as we said earlier) references the Holocausts -- from the mustaches to the ovens -- is beautifully told in animation.

A TALE TO MOVE US: Here's an animated version of "Wild Things," though what's gained in simple movement arguably also forfeits some of the book's charm. Still, great to see another thoughtful incarnation of the tale.

OLD SCHOOL: This crude college Claymation is still a treat to sample, harking back to an era of Rankin-Bass animation.

"THEY ROARED THEIR TERRIBLE ROARS": And last but not least, a narrated video adaptation of the 1963 book that still roars as mightily today.


SO LET IT BE READ: My newsroom neighbor, the esteemed and always entertaining Henry Allen, and I have spent lo these past two weeks often discussing R, CRUMB and his ever-earthy take on Genesis. So it's with true enthusiasm that I point you toward his stellar critique of Crumb's "Genesis Illustrated" in this Sunday's Style & Arts. Enjoy.

WILLIAM SHATNER (no stranger to interstellar sexual innuendo), hammily promoting his latest comic book -- based on his "TekWar" sci-fi novels -- at this weekend's Big Apple Comic-Con:
"It's not your grandfather's comic book anymore. It's filled with lust and licentiousness, it's filled with sexual innuendo -- absolutely! It's a mature thing."

By Michael Cavna  | October 17, 2009; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  General, The Holly Word  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: 'Riffs Picks: Where Balloon Boy and Other Wild Things Are
Next: Should 'Pearls' be cast before swine? Time to Defend That 'Toon


Yeah! Thanks to Mutts I noticed "Pinhead" was gone and Cul De Sac was now in the line-up. Next to go should be Watch Your Head and Frazz should be in it's place.

Posted by: oldgal49er | October 17, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Don't forget the animated "Really Rosie," based on Sendak's "Nutshell Library." It featured a great soundtrack with music and voice by Carole King. Worth watching!

Posted by: SteveinStLouis | October 17, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Cramming a miniscule selection of Dr. Seuss's wartime political cartoons into a YouTube trailer (and underlaying it with an annoying, irrelevant musical track) is a hideous injustice.

Interested fans should look for the book "Dr. Seuss Goes to War", which includes commentary and background material (but only about 25% of the cartoons), or, for a truly complete review of the material, visit the UCSD Mandeville Library Collection at, which contains ALL of Dr. Seuss's political cartoons (from 1941 to 1943), and ALSO a large amount of his commercial advertising artwork. Fascinating forerunners to the characters in his children's books are to be found in both collections.

Posted by: kilby | October 18, 2009 4:57 AM | Report abuse

>> kilby:

Hear, hear -- for those wanting to delve into Seuss's career beyond his children's books, there's a wealth of discovery. I reviewed "Dr. Seuss Goes to War" when it was first published and it's a very worthy read. And while I attended UCSD, the opportunity to see his political/commentary illustration at Central/Geisel was so frequent that it was easy to take for granted -- but never less than inspiring. And you're absolutely right: Seeing precursors to Sneeches and Loraxes taking on Hitler's Germany is entirely evident -- and rather surreal.


Posted by: comicriffscavna | October 18, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Did anyone notice the goof in the Mark Trail strip (10/19/09)?

Posted by: oldgal49er | October 19, 2009 8:15 AM | Report abuse

Hmm. Interesting that the Disney Wild Things test occurred a full six years (if I'm doing the math right) before Beauty and the Beast debuted the ballroom scene...and this pilot looks so much richer. Or maybe I'm the only one who always thought the ballroom scene looked sterile rather than stunning.

Posted by: RKaufman13 | October 19, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

oldgal49er asks:
> Did anyone notice the goof in the Mark Trail strip (10/19/09)?

Yep. In the first panel, the word balloon is coming from the wrong character. Of course, one might say that the mistake is repeated in the second panel too, since the artistic convention in "Mark Trail" is ordinarily that the word balloon should be coming from the enormous possum.

Posted by: seismic-2 | October 19, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Although I am not a fan of Sendak's obnoxious Boss Boy Max and his subservient mother, I do like Sendak's visual style and was pleased to see that it could be so beautifully animated. Clods like Spike Jonz who don't know how to leave well enough alone should never be allowed anywhere near a children's book and given unlimited money and technical resources to ruin it.

Posted by: Amanita1 | October 20, 2009 7:30 PM | Report abuse

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