Spike Jonze has made an unenviable adaptation a wonder.
In 1963’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” Maurice Sendak spun a concise and evocative tale of a young boy named Max immersed in make-believe with pictures reminiscent of a muted ukiyo-e woodblock print and verse like haiku. It was a brief, transcendent book, so dissimilar from many of the current voluminous kiddie tomes which read like the step outline for a film franchise; its brevity was a portal to the reader’s own fantasy world. With this reverent and innovative movie, Jonze and his fellow screenwriter, the sedulous author Dave Eggers, delve beyond the page by expounding on the original theme, no more than suggested by Sendak, of how children cope with and express unverbalized frustration through simultaneously reassuring and intense invention. “Where the Wild Things Are” probes outside the margins to create an emotionally rich and technically absorbing vision.
In Sendak’s primary version, a mischievous Max is sent to bed without any supper, and as he pouts in his room, he sets sail in a self-inscribed boat. Jonze places modern-day Max (Max Records) in a wintry locale where a kid can build an igloo of which he’s most proud. The igloo is also a sanctuary, like his imagination. Astutely, Jonze, in a few taut scenes, details the 9-year-old boy’s disquiet. The structure is smashed by his teenaged sister’s roughhousing friends in a boisterous snowball fight started by Max. He feels a keen sense of abandonment when his older sibling drives off with her pals. The young lad becomes more agitated that evening as his divorced mother (Catherine Keener) entertains her new, serious boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo, in a wisp of a cameo). Increasingly petulant and attention seeking, he bites his mom on the arm. Max, wrapped in a whiskered cat suit, runs from the house, into the woods, and begins his fantastical journey to the fabricated island where the wild things live.
The mythical beasts in the book are anonymous hybrids with “terrible roars,” “teeth,” “eyes,” and “claws.” Here, they physically resemble Sendak’s illustrations and are showcased in a combination of costumed puppeteers and animatronics devised by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. This melding of techniques is generally undetectable so that live action meshes seamlessly with the CGI. But, unlike the source, the movie’s chimeric creatures are given names and seven distinct psyches. Their personalities wouldn’t be out of place in a saturnine (albeit furrier) Ingmar Bergman flick. It’s a grown-up septet with formidable ensemble voiceover work. The allegorical wild things are introduced in thick woods as the lovelorn Carol, the most demonstratively tortured, as soulfully spoken by James Gandolfini, squashes their huts with manic delirium. Chris Cooper is Douglas, the mediating chicken. Judith and Ira are the perfectly suited mismatched couple; Judith (a biting Catherine O’Hara) is the provocateur of the bunch, while Ira (a kindly Forest Whitaker) is an affable get-along sort. The diffident Alexander, who looks like Seth Green trapped in a billy goat’s body, is rendered with tremulous melancholy by Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine.”) The most reticent member of the group is The Bull (voiced, rarely, by Michael Berry Jr.). And the independent KW (Lauren Ambrose, “Six Feet Under”) is Carol’s love interest who pines to leave the forest with new-found friends, a pair of owls named Bob and Terry, whose presence unnerves her former beau. Through his own cunning, Max is quickly made king of this complex collection.
In Sendak’s original, Max and the wild things engage in a wild rumpus, and in Jonze’s film there’s playful bounding and a group hug which makes a mountain out of a troll hill. But there’s also the construction of an intricate fort and a hearty dirt-clod fight to underscore the rivalries and vulnerabilities. Each event is mired in psychological reverberations, especially when Max picks the teams and reveals his favorites during the dirty battle. It also shows how often children’s games hinge on violence; the undercurrent of malice in a dirt-clod fight, dodge ball clash, snowball skirmish or Red Rover tussle can so easily be exposed in one well-aimed instant. The aftermath of the game, though, generates a genuine moment of reflection between a wounded Alexander and Max. The music by Karen O, lead singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Carter Burwell, a frequent composer for the Coen brothers’ films, is a constant compliment to the myriad moods, especially captured in the deeply felt, lyrical lullaby “Hideaway.”
A storied picture book has come to life in a wise, ambitious and thought-provoking movie. Seven years since his last film, and with full artistic control over this project, Jonze, you’d imagine, is presenting “Where the Wild Things Are” as he dreamed it.