The wild things that stomp and howl and snarl through Where the Wild Things Are are mostly big and furry and ferocious, but, as anyone who has read Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book (and who hasn't?) knows, some wild things are small and wear wolf suits and get sent to their rooms without supper for raising a ruckus.
That's what happens to Max (Max Records), a ruckus-raising, tempestuous, howling, sometimes naughty boy. Max is really good at two things: construction and destruction. Like any kid, Max has good days and bad days, and on one especially bad day, he gets in trouble. In the book, Max was banished to his room, where a jungle grew up around him, and the Wild Things made him king. In the movie, Max runs away, and finds a boat, and sails the wild, frothing seas to the island of the Wild Things. The huge, furry beasts are churlish and childish and prone to tantrums, and they make Max (a great bluffer) their king. It was either that or eat him.
Sendak's book is a simple, slender volume, short on words, and filled with beautiful, feverish visions of frolicking beasts and a boy with a wild imagination. The movie, directed with emotional intimacy and intensity by Spike Jonze, gently stretches Sendak's work into a feature-length film, but without substantially changing it or reinterpreting it. Jonze cowrote the film with Dave Eggers, and notably, this adaptation doesn't turn into a jokey, loud, candy-colored action movie (as so often happens, sadly, to beloved children's books when clumsily adapted for the screen). Jonze maintains the serious tone and muted pallette, and the enigmatic ambiguity of the book. Where the Wild Things Are is a movie *about* a young child, but it's not really a movie *for* children (or at least not for young children). The movie is frequently dark and menacing, and the hard-to-please Wild Things are often sad, angry and confused about what they want. The film takes seriously the emotional and psychological complexity of childhood, but also its simplicity. After a hard day of bickering and moping, hugging and biting, boys and monsters alike enjoy nothing more than the simple pleasure of a big, warm, snuggly pileup.
Occasionally, the whooping, soaring, soundtrack (by Carter Burwell and Karen O) is distracting, but the cinematography by Jonze regular Lance Acord is beautifully textured and richly evocative, and the Wild Things' island is a glorious place of sand dunes, seacliffs, caves, and forests where flower petals fall like pink snowflakes. The Wild Things, with their giant muppet bodies, have wonderfully expressive faces (achieved with digital animation), and voices provided by Jame Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, and Paul Dano. They make a delightfully complicated bunch of furry, feathery monsters. They behave like fractious, bickering relatives who, deep down, really love each other even if they can't stand each other. Records is a young actor with remarkable subtlety and a lovely openness and transparency.
Jonze has created a beautiful, rich and satisfying film that is wildly original and genuinely unique. Where the Wild Things Are is warm and scary, touching and thorny, an honest, enthusiastic, imaginative, child's eye look at the world in all its bewildering, astonishing, mystifying complexity. This is a movie that understands that childhood is enough to make anyone wild.