Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is an increasingly rare sort of Hollywood movie: One whose heart is even bigger than its budget. It certainly has its flaws, but it’s hard to imagine a better feature adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s iconic book. Purists will undoubtedly take offense at some of the changes made by Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers, but the pair has managed to bring the soul of Sendak’s lovely story to life in some truly remarkable ways.
Wild Things is a very grown-up movie about a little boy named Max (played by the improbably named Max Records). He isn’t a bad kid, but he’s going through a rough patch that he doesn’t know how to navigate. The movie beautifully captures the raw emotions and confusion of growing up, reminding us that pain and rejection are relative; being ditched by your older sibling as a child hurts just as much as losing your job as an adult. Max’s sister (Pepita Emmerichs) has lost interest in him, and his single mom (Catherine Keener) has her hands full with work and a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo). Max responds by either acting out or retreating into his own vivid imagination. One fateful night he does both, and winds up in a strange land populated by monstrous creatures who soon declare Max their king. It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an arm, and the reality of growing up intrudes on Max’s fantastic kingdom. Even here, life has some very tough lessons for Max.
Jonze and Eggers also have a lesson in store for adults who are eager to see the book’s memorable bedroom transformation scene realized onscreen by such a gifted filmmaker: We don’t always get what we want. Of all the changes made for the movie, the omission of one of the book’s most defining images is hardest to take. There are other notable differences as well, and some of them are not for the best. The book is only nine sentences long, so there is by necessity a great deal of padding here. Unfortunately, some of it feels like just that. Since there isn’t much plot to speak of, Jonze and Eggers fill the time with episodic little mini-adventures that feel repetitive after a while.
Fortunately, the characters are so beautifully realized that it’s hard to mind much. Unlike their counterparts in the book, these Wild Things are given distinct personalities and backstories. Brought to life by a combination of CGI effects, big monster suits from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and pitch-perfect voice talent from the likes of Chris Cooper, James Gandolfini, and Catherine O’Hara, these “monsters” are imbued with so much humanity that we forget they aren’t human. Their interactions with one another and with Max are the source of the movie’s remarkable emotional resonance. They wrestle with issues of love, jealousy, resentment, loneliness, and anger, and they bring Max right along with them. As they spend more time together as Max’s new family, their relationships become increasingly complicated. Max fights to keep things simple, but his actions have consequences that a young boy just can’t anticipate.
This incarnation of Wild Things, then, is really about something even more universal than childhood. We might forget what it’s like to be a kid (and heaping piles of shame on us if we do), but all of us can identify with the desire to shrink away from the complications that invariably intrude upon every human relationship. Like Max, we want things to stay simple and easy to understand. And like Max, we’re pretty much screwed in that respect.
Though it isn’t likely to inspire the hand-wringing and panty-wadding that accompanied the book’s publication in 1963, Wild Things doesn’t deserve the “kids’ movie” label that will undoubtedly be thrust upon it. If rumors are to be believed, some of the movie’s pivotal scenes were reshot after test screenings made young children cry. The filmmakers apparently decided that making adults cry is perfectly acceptable, though—it’s a heart-puncher of a movie at times. It’s also funny, touching, exciting, and occasionally even a bit disturbing. The film is a constant tightrope act that manages to be poignant without being schmaltzy and sweet without being cloying. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a perfectly lovely story that remains true in spirit, if not in details, to Sendak’s classic book.