Jonze co-wrote the screenplay with McSweeney’s guru Dave Eggers. Their script begins the film with several scenes detailing the life of Max (played by the terrifically named Max Records), a 9-year-old boy who likes to wear a wolf suit, wrestle with his dog and howl at the moon. Max spends a lot of time playing alone, and has a hard time fitting in with the neighborhood kids. His sister is distant, his father is absent and his mother (Catherine Keener) is preoccupied with her job and her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo).
The concept of these scenes brings to mind the awful backstory provided in other movies adapted from beloved children’s books — one particularly noxious example being Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in which we learn that the Grinch is grinchy because he had a lousy childhood. But luckily that’s not the case here. These early scenes give Max’s character specificity without explaining away anything interesting about him.
The filmmakers evidently understand that there’s something fundamentally unknowable about children. There’s an intensity of feeling there that even the kids themselves can’t really understand or control. Kids aren’t cute, by and large, and Eggers and Jonze seem to realize that. They remember what childhood was really like. Every child has a bit of a wild thing in him. That’s not necessarily something to be romanticized — Max behaves pretty terribly, after all — but Eggers and Jonze understand the need that boys have for snowball throwing, or fort building, or hitting things with sticks.
The book has Max’s room transforming into a jungle, but in the film Max runs away from home (after demanding of his mother, “Feed me, woman!” and then biting her). He stumbles across a boat, which takes him across the sea to an island where he discovers a family of monstrous Wild Things.
The film gives the creatures distinctive personalities. Judith (voiced by Catherine O’Hara) is a “downer.” Ira (Forest Whitaker) is depressive. Douglas (Chris Cooper) is sensible. Alexander (Paul Dano), the smallest of the Wild Things, thinks no one cares about him. K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), like Max’s sister, wants to leave the family for other friends she has made.
The leader of the Wild Things — the one who most closely resembles Max and the one who bonds with him the quickest — is Carol (James Gandolfini), who is a creature of almost pure emotion. He can go from good cheer to melancholy almost instantly, and like Max can’t seem to control his own feelings.
The Wild Things are all meant to represent various aspects of Max’s personality or people from his life — Judith (Catherine O’Hara) is his pessimism, Carol his reckless emotion, Alexander his fear of being ignored — but it isn’t quite as simple and schematic as all that. The Wild Things all emerge as distinctive characters separate from what they externalize about Max.
In order to keep from being eaten, Max declares himself king of the Wild Things, in whom he finds real kindred spirits. They love freedom and reckless abandon as much as Max does himself. Once he declares that the wild rumpus has started, Max leads the Wild Things in several scenes of tree-felling, dirt-clod-fighting and other forms of mindless destruction. Some critics have called this movie too melancholy or depressing, but these scenes really capture the fun and exuberance of Sendak’s book. Throughout all the scenes, though, there is always the feeling that things are constantly on the verge of going out of control.
The movie restores the danger and subversion to Sendak’s story that decades of familiarity may have removed. There are legitimately frightening scenes in the film, including some in which it’s suggested that the Wild Things made good on their threats to eat some of their previous kings. This isn’t necessarily a movie for children. Rather, it’s about childhood. But I think kids will really respond to the film’s imagination and honesty, as will their parents.
Jonze has always had a very interesting aesthetic to his films, combining a sort of naturalism with an almost indescribable fantasy, mixing the real and unreal to great effect. With help from his cinematographer, Lance Acord, Jonze does the same thing here. The film places this fantasy story in very real forests, deserts and cliffs. The Wild Things are played by actors in 8-foot-tall costumes, with faces created by some very unobtrusive CGI. Having the Wild Things actually there and interacting with Max in these very real environments is astounding.
Records himself gives a tremendously realistic and wild performance, with no trace of the cuteness or mugging that plagues most child actors. It’s a remarkably subtle and nuanced performance, particularly given that he’s acting against giant puppets.
Where the Wild Things Are is really an achievement in children’s films. It combines the dream logic and breathless invention of its own main character (“It’s a fort, and a rocket ship, and it’s about to take off!” “We’ll have a swimming pool, and at the bottom there’s a trampoline!”) with as haunting and honest a consideration of childhood as you’re ever likely to see.
Watch the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are here.