Spike Jonze has recently said in interviews that his chief goal in adapting Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are was to try to capture the feeling of being 9. By that measure—by just about any measure, really—he succeeded wildly. The big hurdle was spinning a beloved, essentially plot-free 300-word children’s book into a feature-length movie, but Jonze—along with co-scripter Dave Eggers, who knows a thing or two about the trials of childhood—managed to remain faithful to Sendak’s sentiment and visuals while expanding their scope.
The movie leaps from the gate, careening through the emotional peaks and valleys of a 9-year-old’s mind—newcomer Max Records plays Max, in a serendipitous coincidence—but never succumbing to cutesy kid-movie tropes. In a breathless early scene, Max engages his sister’s friends in a snowball fight, rushing from ecstasy to rage in a second, from a sense of belonging to the sense of total isolation peculiar to children. Those feelings quickly drive Max to where the wild things are; the real world provides short bookends to a movie that lives mostly inside Max’s head.
And what an expansive, wondrous, confusing, scary, and gorgeous place to be, with lush woods abutting endless deserts and a raging ocean. If those cues aren’t direct enough, the wild things themselves evoke various sides of Max’s personality. (The creatures are brought to life by costumes with CG-augmented faces, and they look great.) He first meets Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), who’s busy crushing everything in sight. No wonder the two become fast friends: Max can relate to Carol’s insecurity, his need to be loved, his temper, and his sweetness.
Though little happens, it doesn’t much need to. Max gets to know the wild things in ways that simply ring true, and that’s story enough. He favors Gandolfini, all but ignores the timid goat-beast voiced by Paul Dano, tries to impress big-sister figure Lauren Ambrose, and bosses around Chris Cooper’s bird-man. And in a subtle, daring, but thoroughly effective move, Jonze has Max fearfully avoid the nameless, near-silent bull, who often appears alone and in the distance, unremarked upon. Whether the action is grand and exciting, as when Jonze brings to life a massive fortress made of twigs, or simple and human, as in touching one-on-ones that Max has with Ambrose, Dano, and Gandolfini, it all feels genuine to the actual experience of childhood in ways that children’s movies generally don’t. Max learns about himself, to be sure, but Jonze never considers making the sort of broad-stroke, “Here’s what everybody learned!” gestures that attempt to stand in for actual emotion. Instead, he lets a little kid loose to explore the terrain of his own mind, which turns out to be an amazing place.