Profoundly beautiful and affecting, Where the Wild Things Are is a breath-taking act of artistic transubstantiation. From Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book about a rambunctious little boy named Max and the kingdom of untamed creatures who adopt him as their like-minded king, filmmaker Spike Jonze has made a movie that is true to Sendak’s unique sensibilities and simultaneously true to Jonze’s own colorful instincts for anarchy. This is, to quote the 1963 children’s classic, ”the most wild thing of all.” It’s also personal movie-making, with corporate backing, at its best. Whatever the (well-documented) struggles it took to create this gem, the result is worth every monster growl.
”Let the wild rumpus start!” Max declares in Sendak’s pages, and Jonze, working from a just-right screenplay he co-wrote with simpatico spirit Dave Eggers, begins the boy-centric hullabaloo from the very first frame. Max Records, a Botticelli-faced discovery, plays the fictional Max with a lovely purity of energy and freedom — he has a rare kid-aged talent for concentration in the midst of brouhaha. When we first meet him careening around the home he shares with his patient mom (huggable Catherine Keener), Max is a boy on a tear, all motor and no brakes. Whether roughhousing with his dog, devising snowball-warfare strategies, shrieking with a power surge of energy, or collapsing in a child’s heap of spent emotion, Max is a dervish of mixed instincts. And Jonze’s astute longtime cinematographer, Lance Acord, captures the jumble naturally, chasing after the kid with the nimbleness of a monkey-cam.
It’s when Max pushes Mom’s tolerance to the limit — Mark Ruffalo has a sweet, small bit as a visiting boyfriend who wears the glazed smile of ”Do I really need this crap?” — that the hero’s adventure really begins. In Sendak’s spare book (fewer than 350 words in all!), Max, outfitted in a really cool wildcat costume with whiskers, travels to unknown territory without leaving his room. In Jonze’s seamlessly expanded view, he runs outside, whiskers erect, then boards a boat and heads to sea, and on and on ”in and out of weeks and almost over a year” (to quote the book) to the place where the Wild Things are. The dark colors of nightmares break into golden hues. The music, by Karen O and Carter Burwell, haunts.
Such a place — so playful and mysterious! So liberating and scary! (Yes, some littler kids might be frightened during this PG-rated film, but probably no more so than they already are in their dreams, the kind that come with no rating system to guide a parent; besides, to face one’s demons is to tame them, right?) Jonze and Eggers make a smooth storytelling leap by giving each Wild Thing a name and a personality, joyously inspired by Sendak’s own illustrations of the creatures’ bodies, balloon-big heads, and little V-shaped shark teeth. (Jonze regular Casey Storm designed the ebullient costumes.) I’ll leave the discussion of personality integration to shrinks and online discussion groups. Any kid — or adult, for that matter — can identify with the anxieties of Carol (James Gandolfini, more delightfully vulnerable than we’ve ever heard him); the peace brokering of Judith (Catherine O’Hara, funny to her marrow); and the squabbles, preferences, vanities, and insecurities of Ira (Forest Whitaker), Alexander (Paul Dano), and Douglas (Chris Cooper). I especially like the measured feminine wisdom of KW (Lauren Ambrose). In their gorgeous landscape of dunes, jungle, and enigmatic structures that are as graceful as Noguchi sculptures (the production designer is K.K. Barrett), Max’s new friends show him the way home to a self he can live with. On the way, I found myself bowled over with emotion.
Sendak’s great gift to readers, old as well as young, is the seriousness with which he presents even the wildest mayhem, the deepest contradictions in human (and Wild Thing) behavior; the author empathizes with fantasists but has no time for cuteness. In his transcendent movie adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze not only respects the original text but also honors movie lovers with the same clarity of vision. This is one of the year’s best. To paraphrase the Wild Thing named KW, I could eat it up, I love it so. A