Maurice Sendak's classic book hinted at the complex psychology of childhood, with its rambunctious wolf-costumed protagonist. Co-writer/director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), however, has found the feature concept lurking beneath Sendak's minimalist text - and burrowed straight into the heart of a troubled young psyche trying to understand itself.
The owner of that psyche is 10-year-old Max (Max Records), whom we meet while he's chasing down the family dog with a fork. And that's pretty typical Max: He's angry about everything in his family dynamic, from his parents' divorce to the lack of caring he sees in his older sister. So when Max acts out during a visit from his mother's new boyfriend, it inspires an angry reaction from his mom (Catherine Keener) - and sends Max running out the front door toward a journey across the sea, to an island inhabited by strange creatures.
Jones and his co-scripter Dave Eggers do a brilliantly efficient job of establishing the stuff that occupies Max's churning mind. From a frustrating run-in with his sister's friends, to the casually apocalyptic comments by his schoolteacher about the sun's finite life-span, Max dwells in a world defined by a sense of powerlessness. He's so desperate to find something to give orders to, he turns one imaginary adventure into an opportunity to reprimand a fence.
So it's no surprise that when Max finds himself in another world - even one where the natives are potentially frightening - he fashions himself their king. And they seem to need a king, particularly an insecure fellow named Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), who's demolishing their homes when Max arrives. It's almost as though the over-sized beasts are working through the very same issues Max himself needs to work through.
And it's also nowhere near as simplistic as that. Jonze and Eggers refuse to establish easy one-to-one correspondence between any denizen of the Wild Things' world and Max's family life - Carol at times serves as father figure, at times more like Max himself - while still understanding a fundamental truth of childhood play.
Yet all of them are also magically and perfectly distinctive. Jonze takes a calculated risk by telling this story using the decidedly old-fashioned, pre-CGI approach of costumed actors playing the creatures, but the combination of imposing bulk and tactile cuddliness works perfectly to match the mixture of love and fear with which Max approaches his human family.
It's hard to know what most kids will make of a movie that, while it's about them, isn't really for them. Jonze and Eggers include enough episodic fun that it could still keep youngsters entertained, but even when the characters are wrestling with each other, the filmmakers are wrestling with ideas far more challenging than the typical "be true to yourself" platitudes of so many kid-flicks. Max needs to confront his anger over his home not being the perfect fortress he wants it to be, and his guilt over feeling angry at the people he knows he's supposed to love. In a world not occupied by humans, Where the Wild Things Are watches with joy and compassion as Max gives himself - and the people around him - permission to be human.
Where The Wild Things Are
Starring: Max Records,
James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener. Directed by Spike Jonze. Rated PG