WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is as beloved as children's books get—everyone remembers it fondly, and for some of us, our affection for the book was only reinforced by the newfound relevance it took on after discovering hallucinogens (hey, it seemed profound at the time).
So it stands to reason that the film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic story has been awaited with excitement, and no small amount of trepidation, by the book's many fans (read: all literate Americans). Its pedigree is solid, to say the least: The movie is directed by Adaptation and Being John Malkovich's Spike Jonze, from a screenplay written by Jonze and Dave Eggers. And then there's the film's trailer, heart-tuggingly soundtracked by the Arcade Fire's "Wake Up," a song that's well documented in its power to make grownups cry like little babies.
The trailer communicates in pure feeling, conveying freedom, recklessness, and loss, which together create a perfect mood of nostalgia for childhood long gone. The movie communicates these things too, but unlike the trailer, it's not trying to make you cry. The film is trying, as Jonze said in a recent interview in the New York Times Magazine, not to be a children's film, but to convey a sense of childhood. In other words, it's not about your lost childhood—it's about a kid who's living his.
The button-eyed Max of Sendak's illustrations is here replaced by a real-live boy, played remarkably well by an aptly named Portlander, Max Records. Max's parents are divorced, and his mom (Catherine Keener) is seeing someone new; meanwhile, his older sister (Pepita Emmerichs) is suddenly too busy to play with him, and her new friends aren't very nice. It's enough to make any kid want to go on a wild rumpus, and that's just what Max does after a particularly explosive fight with his mother: He puts on a wolf costume and tears through his suburban neighborhood, to the very edge of civilization, where he finds a small boat and sets sail for unknown lands.
It's there, of course, that the Wild Things are. The Wild Things now have names and distinct personalities (and they're voiced by the likes of James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, and Forest Whitaker), but as a whole it's safe to say they're grumpy, cantankerous, occasionally kind, and they get their feelings hurt pretty easily. Upon declaring himself their king, Max gets stuck with the job of helping the Wild Things keep the sadness and loneliness away (yes, the Wild Things are a little bit emo).
Where the Wild Things Are is unique among children's books in that the only real stakes are emotional ones. On the island, as king of the Wild Things, Max is tasked with sorting out the complicated allegiances and resentments of his new subjects. It's a lot, in fact, like life on the playground, and much of the movie feels like a big game—perceived as being deadly serious, as only a child could consider it. From the elaborate forts that Max plans and constructs to the sorta half-assed, sorta brilliant stories he tells, Wild Things perfectly captures the improvisational quality of children's play. If it doesn't pack quite the intensely personal emotional wallop of the trailer, it nonetheless contains moments of sheer unadulterated recklessness, as Max and the Wild Things play ferocious games in the forest, accompanied by giddy, Karen O-scored drumbeats. But the film's quiet moments really hit home, as Max, scared in his now-tattered wolf costume, does his best to help his new friends feel safe in the world they live in. In its willingness to take childhood seriously, Where the Wild Things Are is every bit as good as we wanted it to be.