Ten plain lines and eighteen colorful illustrations—this is all that comprises Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.” And yet, through the eyes of director Spike Jonze, Sendak’s anarchic world undergoes a creative transformation that reaches far beyond the modest offerings of the book. Jonze takes Sendak’s world of childhood rebellion and roguish imagination and spins it into an extended discourse on growing up and the importance of family.
The film begins with the same mischief that introduces the protagonist, Max, in the book. After a heated argument with his mother (Catherine Keener)—who goes unseen in the book—Max dons a tattered wolf costume, runs to the woods behind his house, and escapes by sea to an imaginary island. Residing there are nine enormous monsters known as the Wild Things. Though seemingly barbaric at first—upon Max’s arrival, they are destroying their homes by bonfire—these Wild Things are charmingly naïve and quickly proclaim Max their new king. The Wild Things entrust Max with the task of “keeping out the sadness,” a responsibility he confidently takes on for fear of being eaten. With this, he begins to mold his chaotic new kingdom into an idealistic one where, in his words, “only the things you want to happen, would happen”—albeit fleetingly.
Jonze, together with Dave Eggers—who dipped into screenwriting earlier this year with Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go”—crafted nine compassionate, insecure, and endearingly humorous beasts from the mute monsters of Sendak’s book. A compelling combination of animatronics and CGI, these gargantuan monsters come to life with the exceptional voice work of Oscar-winning greats like Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper.
The young Max Records, who was all of 9 when shooting for the film began, deserves special praise for his expressive portrayal of Max, convincingly presenting him as both obnoxious brat and benevolent dictator. Max emerges as a much more nuanced and developed character in the film than his literary counterpart. He is less impish and more thoughtful, and he experiences a more profound realization at the movie’s end. The creation and destruction of the home is a recurring motif. Max is seen building forts, igloos, and king’s quarters, but none of these endure or give him the safety he seeks. Likewise, the Wild Things are drawn to caves and attempt to construct their own safe refuge in the form of a large, wooden cocoon.
The movie’s two primary beasts are the temperamental Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) and the pragmatic, restless KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), who, much like Max, flees her home seeking something more. Through the Wild Things’ search for a womb-like shelter free from loneliness, Max comes to understand his own need for the security provided by family.
Jonze imitates Sendak’s cramped illustrations of Max’s life at home with up-close, claustrophobic frames in the first part of the film. As the book continues, Sendak’s illustrations grow larger, eventually encompassing two pages; in the film, these expansive depictions of Max’s imagined realm become vast frames of striking deserts and forests that swallow viewers whole.
With so little written material from which to create a feature-length film, Jonze and Eggers’ plot understandably lacks direction at times. In one bizarre subplot, KW takes Max on a short journey to meet two of her friends. These turn out to be a pair of rowdy owls whose screeching cannot be understood by Max or the monsters. Scenes with these two characters seem largely out of place and even confusing when considering the larger narrative.
There are a few overlong scenes of island chaos, which don’t advance the plot, but these only add to the sense of harmless anarchy that Sendak evokes, and thus remain true to the book. These more trivial scenes are ultimately eclipsed by exceptionally poignant exchanges, in particular Max’s one-on-one conversations with Carol and KW. The audience realizes through these more personal scenes that very little separates these giant monsters from their young ruler.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is the first in a series of prominent children’s book adaptations that will hit theatres in the coming months, including Wes Anderson’s take on Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Thankfully, Jonze steers clear of the common, sanitized book-to-film route that so many directors have followed in the past. “Where the Wild Things Are” preserves the original’s crucial sense of magic and mischief, but its mature treatment of fear and loss is what makes it a truly memorable adaptation.
—Staff writer Andres A. Arguello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.