Spike Jonze’s adaptation of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, Maurice Sendak’s beloved story about Max, a naughty boy in a wolf suit who sails away to an exotic jungle and meets giant beasties who make him their king, takes this tendency even further. In expanding the couple of dozen pages of Sendak’s picture-book to feature length, Jonze and his co-writer, Dave Eggers, approach atavistic fantasy with jarring formal and psychological realism. The forest, desert and mountain locations are real, as are the creature costumes (CGI facial expressions aside); beautifully photographed, often in handheld shots and magic-hour light, these landscapes and figures have a solidity, weight and detail that feels uncanny in an age of virtual imagining.
Lumbering around their island with satisfying heft, these weird beasts – hybrids of human, animal and mythical parts that faithfully realise Sendak’s drawings – have an oddly quotidian social dynamic and comically normal names: insecure Judith and Alexander (voiced by Catherine O’Hara and Paul Dano), more assured Ira and Douglas (Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper), gruff but vulnerable Carol (James Gandolfini). Feeling less like a pack of monsters than a group of long-arrested adolescents left to their own devices, they entertain crushes, grudges and neuroses, pile gleefully into group projects, sustain minor injuries and go off in sulks, yearning for structure and security all the while. Think ‘Lord of the Flies’ on Fraggle Rock. Finding himself in loco parentis, Max must take emotional responsibility, and one of the film’s pleasures is young Max Records’s deft and unaffected portrayal of this shift.
It’s hard to guess whether many children will enjoy the movie. Ponderous at times, it could probably be 15 minutes shorter and lacks a real sense of mortal danger. There’s also sometimes an over-determined feel to the correspondences between the island adventure and Max’s real life with his mother (Catherine Keener) and sister, as laid out in the opening scenes. But ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ stands out for its unusually potent evocation of the timbre of childhood imagining, with its combination of the outré and the banal, grand schemes jumbled up with delicate feelings and the urge to smash things up.