Spike Jonze's surreal comedies Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002) left little indication that he would so lovingly turn his attention to Maurice Sendak's classic 1963 children's book Where the Wild Things Are.
The thin volume is heavy on illustrations but contains only 10 sentences, so Jonze and his co-writer, novelist Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) had to make more than a few additions to create this beautiful 101-minute film. Even though the filmmakers expanded the story, it's very much in keeping with the book's spirit.
Max is played by a young unknown Oregon actor named Max Records.
Catherine Keener plays Max's mom, a character only referred to but not seen in the book. A single mother stressed about her job, she's trying to understand her son's rambunctious ways. One night he runs around his house wearing a wolf suit and making "mischief of one kind or another" while his mother entertains a potential boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo). His defiant cry at his mother in the book, "I'll eat you up!" becomes an actual bite in the movie.
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Most of the action takes place on his imaginary island, where Max has his adventures with the Wild Things, who, unlike in the book, have been given names and personalities.
The actors who play the beasts include James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose and Chris Cooper.
Sendak's book cleverly captured existential uncertainties of growing up in a way that kids and adults could understand in a few pages.
Jonze's film uses a warmer, richer palette while not trying to overexplain things. And the 20 or so minutes before he goes to the island are adroitly and efficiently presented, putting the audience inside Max's world.
On the island, Max is king, as we all are inside our own heads, and eventually he finds himself having to make his own difficult parental choices before sailing home. And although he grows up a bit, the film reminds us of the wild thing in all of us and never loses its magic.
Where the Wild Things Are retails for $28.98 or $35.99 on Blu-ray.