I'll fess up: I was ready to not like this cinematic adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. Most beloved children's books don't translate well to the big screen, and the ads made the movie look cute. Heading to the theater, I took a minute -- literally -- to re-read the book, all 10 sentences of it.
Thus, I was surprised to find such a tiny but evocative work effectively blown out to 94 minutes. Even better, the tale retained its distinctive aura -- dark, unsettling, fanciful, exhilarating, wise -- as well as its affirmation of what a terrible, wonderful time childhood can be.
Spike Jonze -- director of all your favorite kooky indie-rock music videos as well as two Charlie Kaufmann-penned loop-de-loop films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) -- dares to tackle Maurice Sendak's 1963 award-wining book; Jonze, who had Sendak's blessing, co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers.
The star of the story is 9-year-old Max (a wonderful Max Records), who is alternately sweet, angry, needy, frustrated, creative, lonely and bursting with misdirected energy. After raging at his overburdened single mom (Catherine Keener), Max is sent to his room. But he runs away -- wearing his favorite wolf costume -- and, finding a small boat, sails to a mysterious island.
Disembarking, he discovers the inhabitants -- large, furry, scary-looking creatures -- shouting, bickering and smashing things. After they threaten to eat him, Max quickly claims he has magical powers, and the humbled beasties decide to make him their king. That settled, Max and the creatures set about having unbridled fun -- screaming, rough-housing, everything parents put the kibosh on.
Rumpus-ing is grand, until Max begins to realize that being king is tough. He's forced to struggle with his own feelings of hurt, anger and confusion, as well as those of his childlike subjects. In expanding the narrative, Jonze has created a fantasy world with clear analogs to the left-behind everyday: Now Max is the parent, and the insights he gains, like all valuable lessons, come at some emotional cost.
If the film has some stretched-out or padded sections in the middle, they can be chalked up to lazy, hazy ways of how childhood used to be experienced. I also found loosening my adult brain and just absorbing the film was helpful. The tinkly emo-ish music, the gorgeous and slightly surreal locations, the occasionally frenetic camerawork, the weird but "normal" creatures -- it's all an invitation into a child's reverie.
That illusion is buttressed by the fantastically realized creatures, who are a combination of voice talent, puppetry and computer animation (used chiefly for facial expressions). They appear both toy-like (as a child might conjure them) and wholly believable as walking-talking acquaintances.
One caution: This is not a movie for younger kids. It's a movie about childhood, and more specifically, some of its worst aspects. Older kids who dig their entertainment a little broody and twisted should be enthralled. But it's those of us who have already survived youth that will be most appreciative of the delicate balancing act Jonze has undertaken -- fusing his vision to Sendak's classic, while reminding us of the joys and woes of being a child.