Maurice Sendak might say that where the wild things are is a place where children go when there’s too much sadness in their lives. In Spike Jonze’s much-anticipated film adaptation of Sendak’s classic children’s book, we understand this world more than ever as a stirring projection of a nine-year-old boy’s troubled psyche, a place of vast deserts and sinister forests and ginormous monsters who build homes and playgrounds seemingly designed by Richard Serra and whose behaviors parallel those of the humans in the tyke’s life, and in the case of the particularly fearsome Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the father who is conspicuously missing from it.
The film’s pleasures derive partly from its rich and realistic sense of psychological detail, the way Max (Max Records) nestles next to his mother’s feet, like the animal he dresses as, pulling at her stockings while she speaks on the phone. He longs for intimacy, evident too in the way he cries when his sister doesn’t stick up for him after a playful snow fight with her friends culminates in the destruction of his igloo, but works hard at precipitating his unhappiness, destroying in a fit of anger a memento he made for his big sis and antagonizing his mother (Catherine Keener) before dinner for smooching her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) on the couch.
Max, like Jonze, may rush to get to the island where the wild things are—the trip there is, for sure, cinematically and philosophically underthought, even if it does poignantly connect to an inscription on a globe given to Max by his father—but what the journey reveals about the nature of adolescence is haunting. Part of the group Armond White dubbed the American Eccentrics, Jonze, like Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola, understands the paradoxes of growing up, obsessing over his youthful nostalgia in ways that attest both to his solipsism and sensitivity as a filmmaker. You watch Where the Wild Things Are like you do Anderson’s brilliant The Royal Tenenbaums and Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, knowing that their makers spent many moons, as children, cocooned by their insecurities and, as adults, working fearlessly to ensure that their art both reflects their unique torments and resonates with ours.
Jonze, the earthiest of the Eccentrics, accomplishes this here by getting elemental. Max’s dilemma and emotions are distilled to their essence, so the way his real-life suffering informs his dreamscapes becomes unmistakable. This correlation between the real and the imagined, and the way human feeling is made animalistic, may be understood too obviously in the way the wild things live (in circular nests lined with twigs, reminiscent of Max’s igloo and ball of rubberands), fight (like her sister’s friends), and love (like the motherly way KW, voiced by Lauren Ambrose, protects Max from an angry Carol by swallowing the boy), but the story’s flights of eccentric fancy keep the story feeling alive and surprising. By observing the whims, longings, pettiness, and suffering of the wild things, Max comes to realize that his title of king—like that of a father or creator—isn’t just some braggart’s badge of privilege but one of honor and responsibility.
I could have done without the songs by Karen O and the Kids, not because the tunes feel like appeals to the tastes of Pitchfork hipsters but because they interfere with the elegiac tone of Max’s narrative on the island. (If they feel discordant with Jonze’s images, it’s because they never feel, like the wild things, as if they’re projections of Max’s troubles and interests; you could say he seems more like a Death Cab for Cutie kind of kid.) But it’s impossible not to be moved by the nine-year-old’s journey. In class, Max’s teacher’s alarmist ramblings about the sun dying—and the world with it—haunt him straight into dreams. This explains the desert of sand, but when Max wonders “what comes after dust” you can tell that Jonze is seriously fixated on Max’s fearful yearnings. This is how Wild Things becomes more than just a visual feast; it’s a blissful evocation of imagining as a process of spiritual maturation.