By A. O. SCOTT
MOST of the action in “Where the Wild Things Are” takes place on an island of monsters, who roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth and, above all, try to work out their terrible emotional issues in the presence of a young boy named Max.
The creatures are brilliantly realized, with giant costumes, digitized faces and the voices of some very gifted actors (including James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper and Catherine O’Hara). The rough, strange naturalism of their world is the great achievement of the director Spike Jonze, who has a way, in all his films, of making impossible feats of visual invention look like child’s play.
Vivid and enchanting though the land of the wild things may be, it also distills and reflects the impulses and anxieties that Max (played by Max Records) has tried to leave behind. The prickly friendships and unstated tensions that arise among Carol, K W and the other big, furry monsters are recognizable to anyone who has lived among humans and are implicit in the scenes of everyday life that precede Max’s voyage. Nearly everything that happens on that island is foreshadowed in the first few minutes of the movie, in which nothing very extraordinary happens at all.
It is a winter day on a North American street, where the wood-frame houses sit close together and the kids amuse themselves without much adult supervision. Maurice Sendak’s wild rumpus is reached by way of Longfellow, who observed that “a boy’s will is the wind’s will, and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”
Like most children traversing the territory between toddlerhood and adolescence, Max makes his own world, but he does not make it as he pleases, in circumstances of his own choosing. The globe his absent father gave him has a small plaque at the base identifying Max as “the owner of this world.” That’s only a plaything, though. The boy’s imagination may be unconstrained, but like any child he is tethered to the will of others and a set of painfully familiar limiting facts. He is small, dependent and alone.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is partly the story of how Max finds companionship among the monsters, a situation that turns out to present its own challenges and difficulties. His solitude, however, is the film’s starting point; after the boisterous opening credits, in which homage is paid to Mr. Sendak’s picture book — here is our hero in his wolf suit, noisily harassing the family dog — we jump to a shot of Max’s legs sticking out of the igloo he has made from a plowed-up pile of snow across the street from his house.
Sweet, warbly music (by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) cushions him like an extra layer of winter clothing, signaling the unhurried pleasure of play taken as seriously as work. The editing, its jump cuts mirroring the fluctuations of Max’s attention, subtly disorients our sense of time, compressing a whole afternoon into a few minutes and expanding seconds of perception into languorous stretches of concentrated activity.
Max is absorbed, almost literally, in his project, and the only thing left is to show it off to someone. His older sister, in the house talking on the phone, shoos her brother away when he invites her outside to see what he has made in the snow. “Go play with your friends,” she says, but his only playmate is the fence bordering the lot where his fortress stands.
Undeterred, he assembles a stockpile of snowballs and plants his battle standard (a blue plastic bag fastened to a stick) atop the icy roof. Some canny reconnaissance locates a suitable foe, and Max crosses back to his own house to lay siege to his treacherous sister and her gigantic, wild, teenage, boy friends. The battle begins with whoops of laughter — he has captured some attention and drawn enemy fire that can be regarded as friendly — and ends in tears. Max’s tears, of course. His igloo is smashed by one of the giants, and the world he has built lies in ruins, along with the day and his mood.
That mood will swing a few more times, from rage to regret and then from tenderness back to rage. Although we have not yet met Max’s mother, a well-worn maternal admonition hovers over those first moments, especially as the giddiness of the snowball fight veers toward catastrophe. It’s always fun until someone gets hurt.
And it might not be fun unless someone did. Children’s entertainment these days tends to swerve between treacly sentiment and sugar-rush rambunctiousness, but few movies embrace the aggression and passion of childhood as ardently or accurately as “Wild Things.” Nor are the subtle continuities between adult and juvenile behavior often handled with the care and insight shown by Mr. Jonze and his co-writer, Dave Eggers. Precocious kids and grown-ups (men in particular) who take refuge in immaturity are ubiquitous, of course, but we don’t often see the likes of Max on screen, even though our neighborhoods and our houses might be overrun with Maxes.
He’s a regular kid, in other words, and our first encounter with him does not seem to suggest anything more. Max himself could sum up the first minutes of his movie more succinctly than any critic or pair of screenwriters. “I built this awesome igloo, and then some bigger kids came along and wrecked it.” We’ve all been there. But we may have forgotten what it felt like — how we were immune to the cold until suddenly we were freezing; how we were happy and angry, bored and entranced, all in the space of a few minutes; how we felt like kings and then our kingdoms were destroyed.
All of this will happen again, on the other side of the water. Just as Max’s sister has moved onto new friendships, leaving behind the brother who loves her best (and just as his mother seems to him to prefer the company of her boyfriend), so will K W abandon Carol for a couple of owls named Bob and Terry. The smashing of the igloo foretells both Max and Carol’s joyful demolition of the wild things’ houses and Carol’s climactic, out-of-control smashing of the grand edifice he and Max have planned and built. The snowballs come back as clods of dirt, which hurt when they hit their targets even though they are so much fun to hurl.
As for the wild things, though they are large in size and grown-up in voice and manner, they seem not to have outgrown the emotional drama Max thought he was fleeing. On the contrary, their moody, manipulative, anxious ways mark them as creatures of civilization, not instinct. They are less emanations of his unconscious, as a Freudian or orthodox Sendakian interpretation might suggest, than specters of his future. Alone with our thoughts and our toys, close to home and its comforts, we are tame even when we feel otherwise. It’s only later, when we’re set free among the other monsters, that things really start to get wild.