Most of the snuffling, growling beasts that roam and often stomp through “Where the Wild Things Are,” Spike Jonze’s alternately perfect and imperfect if always beautiful adaptation of the Maurice Sendak children’s book, come covered in fur. Some have horns; most have twitchy tails and vicious-looking teeth. The beasts snarl and howl and sometimes sniffle. One has a runny nose. Yet another has pale, smooth skin and the kind of large, wondering eyes that usually grow smaller and less curious with age. This beast is Max, the boy in the wolf costume who one night slips into the kind of dream the movies were made for.
Max, played by the newcomer Max Records, is the pivotal character in this intensely original and haunting movie, though by far the most important figure here proves to be Mr. Jonze. After years in the news, the project and its improbability — a live-action movie based on a slender, illustrated children’s book that runs fewer than 40 pages, some without any words at all — are no longer a surprise. Even so, it startles and charms and delights largely because Mr. Jonze’s filmmaking exceeds anything he’s done in either of his inventive previous features, “Being John Malkovich” (1999) and “Adaptation” (2002). With “Where the Wild Things Are” he has made a work of art that stands up to its source and, in some instances, surpasses it.
First published in 1963, the book follows the adventures of Max, who looks to be about 6 (he’s closer to 9 in the movie) and enters making mischief “of one kind and another” while dressed in a wolf suit with a long, bushy tail and a hood with ears and whiskers. After his unseen mother calls him “wild thing!” and he threatens to eat her up, he is sent to his room without dinner. But his room magically transforms into a forest and, finding a boat, he sails to a place populated by giant, hairy, scary beasts that make him their king. Eventually the tug of home pulls him back to his room, where supper (“still hot”) sits waiting.
There are different ways to read the wild things, through a Freudian or colonialist prism, and probably as many ways to ruin this delicate story of a solitary child liberated by his imagination. Happily, Mr. Jonze, who wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers, has not attempted to enlarge or improve the story by interpreting it. Rather, he has expanded it, very gently. The movie is still a story about a boy, his mother, his room, his loneliness and various wild things of his creation. But now there are new details and shadings to complement the book’s material, like Max’s older sister, Claire (Pepita Emmerichs), whose lank hair and adolescent gloom are touchingly mirrored by a wild thing named K W (voiced by Lauren Ambrose).
Like Mr. Sendak’s unruly boy, the movie’s Max is a storm without warning, throwing himself into the story while noisily chasing the family dog down some stairs. Shot with a handheld camera that can barely contain the boy’s image inside the frame, these clattering, jangling introductory moments are disruptive, disorienting — it’s hard to see exactly where Max and the dog are as you all tumble down — and purely exhilarating. Yet after jolting the story to excited life, Mr. Jonze quiets the movie down for a series of flawlessly calibrated scenes of Max alone and with his sister and mother (Catherine Keener), an interlude that tells you everything you need to know about the boy and that announces all that will happen next.
These scenes, lasting 20 minutes or so, are achingly intimate and tender. Mr. Jonze, working with his regular cinematographer, Lance Acord, brings you close into Max’s world as he builds an igloo in the street, starts a snowball fight with Claire’s friends and is left to weep alone after the igloo is destroyed. (When Max slides into the igloo, the camera is right there, which means that you’re there too when disaster strikes.) The world is cruel, children too, lessons that Max absorbs through a smear of tears and hurt. The wound doesn’t heal. Max clomps and then stomps and then erupts: he roars at his mother. She roars back. And, then, like his storybook counterpart — like everyone else — he sails into the world, adrift and alone.
This is the existential given at the heart of both Mr. Sendak’s book and Mr. Jonze’s movie, which might come as a surprise to anyone who misremembers the original, with its dark, crosshatched lines; spiky emotions; Max’s many frowns; and the “terrible teeth” and “terrible claws” of the creatures. Though their conceptual bite remains sharply intact, Mr. Jonze’s wild things are softer, cuddlier-looking than the drawn ones because they have partly been brought to waddling life by performers in outsize costumes. (The fluid tremors of emotion enlivening the fuzzy faces were primarily created through computer-generated animation.) The vexed, whining, caressing voices — James Gandolfini as Carol, Catherine O’Hara as Judith, Forest Whitaker as Ira, Paul Dano as Alexander and Chris Cooper as Douglas — do the expressive rest.
Max discovers the wild things on an island, destroying their homes in fury and for kicks. Introductions are made, wary sniffs exchanged. But these are his kind of beasts, after all, and so, amid the rough splendor of a primeval forest where the air swirls with pink petals and snowflakes, he becomes their king. “Let the wild rumpus start!” he yells, as all the creatures, Max now included, rampage. It’s all very new (and scary) but also vaguely familiar, because we’ve seen it before. The tantrums, tears and angry words from the film’s first 20 minutes all start to resurface during this idyll, much as our waking hours invade our dreams: the snowball fight is recast as a dirt-clod battle. Max plays the angry child and then the reproving parent.
Much is left unexplained in Mr. Jonze’s adaptation, including Max’s melancholia, which hangs over him, his family and his wild things like a gathering storm. But childhood has its secrets, mysteries, small and large terrors. When a hilariously bungling teacher explains, rather too casually, that the sun is going to die, the flash of horror on Max’s face indicates that he understands that the sun won’t be the only one to go. There are other reasons, perhaps, an absent father, a distracted mother. (And when a frightened Max listens to an argument between Carol and K W, you hear the echoes of parental discord.) But such analysis is for therapy, not art, and one of the film’s pleasures is its refusal of banal explanation.
On occasion, Mr. Jonze lingers too long on his lovely pictures, particularly on the island, where the film’s energy starts to wane, despite the glorious whoops in Carter Burwell and Karen O’s score. Mr. Jonze loves Max’s wild things, but you don’t need to hang around long to adore them as well. Yet these are minor complaints about a film that often dazzles during its quietest moments, as when Max sets sail, and you intuit his pluck and will from the close-ups of him staring into the unknown. He looms large here, as we do inside our heads. But when the view abruptly shifts to an overhead shot, you see that the boat is simply a speck amid an overwhelming vastness. This is the human condition, in two eloquent images.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). The wild things in the movie have been designed and directed toward a distinctly older age group than the book’s original audience. If monsters give you the willies, beware!
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Opens on Friday nationwide. Directed by Spike Jonze; written by Mr. Jonze and Dave Eggers, based on the book by Maurice Sendak; director of photography, Lance Acord; edited by Eric Zumbrunnen and James Haygood; music by Karen O and Carter Burwell; production designer, K. K. Barrett; produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, John B. Carls, Mr. Sendak and Vincent Landay; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
WITH: Max Records (Max), Catherine Keener (Mom), Mark Ruffalo (Boyfriend), Lauren Ambrose (KW), Chris Cooper (Douglas), James Gandolfini (Carol), Catherine O’Hara (Judith), Forest Whitaker (Ira), Paul Dano (Alexander) and Pepita Emmerichs (Claire).