Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers’ Where the Wild Things Are remembers something most adults have forgotten: A huge gulf lies between the simplicity of children’s entertainment and the complexity of actual childhood. Growing up may be a time of pure delight, but it also features stretches of agonizing boredom, sudden fright, occasional sorrow and general perplexity at the arbitrary nature of adult rules.
Most artwork aimed at children, even some of the great ones, grabs for the pleasure and maybe a pinch of terror, but seldom attempts to evoke the tangled youthful feelings that go hand-in-hand with the sense of the wonder. Where the Wild Things Are serves as a remarkable exception that grounds its visual splendors in bittersweet realism.
Being John Malkovich director Jonze and co-writer Eggers retain many images from Maurice Sendak’s archetypal picture book. Rambunctious young Max (played by a talented young actor named Max Records — really) wears an off-white wolf suit reminiscent of Ralphie’s bunny outfit from A Christmas Story and chases the family dog with a fork in an early scene. Jonze and Eggers provide the requisite feature film backstory with admirable economy. Max grows up as an imaginative, latch-key son of divorce with a working mother (Catherine Keener) and a neglectful teenage sister.
When Mom flirts with a gentleman caller, Max’s tendency to act out reaches a boiling point and he runs away from home. Without batting an eye, Max finds a sailboat, crosses the ocean and discovers the craggy land of the wild things. Despite their fuzzy, fanciful appearances, the beasties have mundane names and personalities. Horned Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) posesses a secret artistic streak and destructive anger-management issues; nurturing K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) has a wandering nature; peevish Judith (Catherine O’Hara) challenges authority; meek, goatish Alexander (Paul Dano) craves attention. Their deliveries feel comparably innovative to the naturalistic voice acting of the young cast of the first "Charlie Brown" specials in the 1960s. In fact, these wild things prove as neurotic and lovable as “Peanuts” characters.
Max bluffs his way into becoming their king, which requires decisions as well as emotional support: “Will you keep out all the sadness?” Carol asks in one of the film’s heartbreaking lines. Max leads the creatures in one wild rumpus after another, burning off his own savage emotions without the aid of Ritalin. He even gives his monster pals a sense of purpose, channeling their talents into the creation of the biggest, coolest fort ever. (When he grows up, Max will be a natural leader of team-building exercises.) But Max discovers that being their king amounts to being a parent, a tougher job than he imagines.
For a film that spotlights shaggy monsters smashing stuff, Where the Wild Things Are maintains a sense of delicacy. The wild things look fierce but turn out to be fairly fragile. Rendered in Sendak-inspired costumes with seamless CGI facial features, the creatures prove poignantly expressive, and may be the greatest non-Muppet creations of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Jonze uses genuine locations, not sets, and shoots the film in the natural light that marked his previous works. On a frame-by-frame basis, Where the Wild Things Are presents one astonishing image after another that conveys an autumnal feeling of childhood nearing its end.
Artistically, Where the Wild Things Are is all of a piece. Despite rumors of a troubled production, the film comes across as personal and uncompromised, lacking the kind of unevenness that marked, say, Time Bandits or The Dark Crystal. Nevertheless, the pace flags and the pervasive sense of melancholy may bring some audiences down. Whether you love the film or merely like it may hinge on your reaction to Karen O’s haunting, lachrymose pop songs, which emphasize acoustic guitars and brittle, echoing vocals.
Jonze and Eggers intend Where the Wild Things Are not as escapism, but as a roundabout means of engaging with the difficulties of growing up. Whether it’s suitable for children is a tricky question: It features several startling moments, but some kids are more likely to be restless than scared. Many young ones will be fascinated by the childlike wild things and Max’s challenges with “raising them.” Adults should treat Where the Wild Things Are as a chance for stimulating children to think, rather than pacifying them into a stupor.