In the beautifully understated opening sentence of Maurice Sendak's “Where the Wild Things Are,” we learn that the young protagonist, Max, “makes mischief of one kind and another.” When my mother used to read the book to me as a child, I would think, there's so much mischief to be made if you really think about it.
Spike Jonze, the defiantly mischievous director whom Sendak handpicked to re-imagine the story, opens his film by reveling in the details of all that implied mayhem. Max tumbles, dashes, stomps, shouts, laughs and wails. He tackles his dog, builds a snow fort, destroys his sister's room, bites his mother. All of this is filmed in vibrant chaos, the camera jostling and Max falling in and out of the shot. It's a joy to watch — Max (and Jonze) at play, careening wildly in the frenetic rhythms of childhood.
Of course, if all that Jonze had in his repertoire of tricks was mischief, he'd still be making skater videos. He is also a master of scenes of tender intimacy: the fleeting comfort of being safely inside a fort or Max's needy, gentle tug on the toe of his mother's panty hose. His camera always finds the perfect angle of loneliness — as Max peaks timidly through cracks, around walls or up the legs of a table at the people he loves, the sense of distance is aching.
Jonze, along with screenwriting partner Dave Eggers, adds a back-story to Sendak's Max. There has been a divorce, Max misses his father, his big sister is growing up and away from Max (and doesn't protect him when her stupid new friends destroy his snow fort!). These details risk damaging the universal appeal of the literary Max as every-child, but to the film's credit, the bummers in Max's life are shadings, not explanations. They might be triggers for his immediate outbursts, but the film lingers not on the psychological why's of Max's emotions, but the emotions themselves.
When Max can't take it any more, he runs away and imagines his way into a jungle, aboard a ship, and to a distant land where, of course, the wild things are. The world that Max imagines has the requisite danger and teeth-gnashing monsters, but these creatures turn out to be as nervous as they are wild. They mumble, brood and bicker. When Max is made king of the wild things, his first order is a wild rumpus (read: run through the forest and destroy stuff), but his mission as king is significantly more challenging. “Will you keep out all the sadness?” the wild things ask. “What about the loneliness?”
Forts are built and games are played, but the trouble with the sadness remains, and the creatures spend as much time kvetching as they do stomping about. The wild things talk a little bit like adults, but their concerns are those of a hyper-emotional child — they feel rejected, lonely, insecure, unheard.
As talky and gloomy as the wild things can be, magic abounds — the hallowed forests, thrashing coastlines, and bright and empty deserts capture the rangy imaginative landscape of a child. The creatures are gorgeously crafted, mammoth puppets that destroy property, themselves, and each other with all the punk-rock glee of the boys from “Jackass” (with whom Jonze has worked). Many of the best scenes play out like the rambunctious music videos Jonze is famous for — explosive, energetic bits of eye candy tightly focused on the physicality and emotional intensity of moments. During the wild rumpus scene, the kids sitting around me in the audience danced and jumped with such fervor I thought their seats would break.
While this manic beauty is undeniable, the film is messy, difficult and sad. Some may find it overly serious about the transcendence of playful imagination or the trauma of wounded feelings. Sendak wrote an astonishing story for everyone — Jonze has adapted it into an astonishing film that is decidedly not for everyone.
Jonze himself has said that he wanted to make a movie “about childhood,” and it's easy on one level to forgive the film's excesses as true to a 9-year-old's perspective. But “Where the Wild Things Are” achieves something greater in reminding us of the sheer power of human emotions. Growing up means learning how to manage, filter and reign in our feelings; you can't go around destroying things every time you're hurt. And yet — we do feel wild things sometimes, and they are neither fantastical nor childlike. They're part of who we are. If Max goes on a hero's journey of sorts in this film, the result is something more primal than the usual triumph. Sometimes, there is no solution; there is nothing to do but howl.