Is the family-film crowd that flocked to “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” ready for the deep melancholy of Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are”? At a recent preview screening in Seattle, the audience dutifully sported the studio’s gold paper crowns and acted giddy with anticipation as the film’s co-writer Dave Eggers invited viewers to howl like wild things whenever the mood struck. Unless this critic’s ears failed him, no one howled during the film — a compliment of sorts to its discomfiting subversion of the kiddie-flick holla-back formula. In Jonze’s admirably realist adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book, the howl is no joyful whoop, but a plaintive recognition of loss, of pain, of the impermanence of things wild and ordinary — what most of us go to movies, particularly family movies, to avoid, probably at our peril.
As in Sendak’s book, the film’s lonely young Max flees to the seemingly far-off world of his imagination and eventually finds a reason to return. If anything, Jonze, expanding upon a slender source, enhances the book’s intimations of childhood anger and remorse. (Speaking as the father of a boy roughly Max’s age, I haven’t seen a film that’s truer to preteen male tantrum logic in many moons, maybe ever.)
Introduced first terrorizing the family dog and then his mom (Catherine Keener), Max (Max Records), grown slightly too large for his wolf suit, is the picture of boyhood aggression — although the kid’s not yet old enough to stifle his tears. Jonze’s courageous bid to get inside of Max’s fourth-grade head and stay there pays sharp dividends, not least when the boy’s beloved igloo gets crushed by the big kids of his neighborhood, the film’s wintry images appearing to melt away themselves.
As in real life, so it is in the fantasy realm. Briskly transported by private sailboat to the island of his dreams (no blossoming bedroom here), Max meets a half-dozen kindred spirits — gigantic, goofy, puppet-like creatures who favor petty one-upmanship, immature verbal sparring (yes, they talk) and the wanton destruction of nature and property. Max crowns himself “King of all Wild Things” and the beasts go along, in part because this pint-sized master claims to have a “sadness shield” and the power to “explode loneliness.” (Wild things are tempted to escape, too.) In the meantime, the king calls for a wild rumpus — which in Jonze’s (or Max’s?) imagination amounts to an everyday set of tree-scraping, hog-piling shenanigans, nothing the average American kid hasn’t done repeatedly in or out of costume.
This is Jonze’s great gift to kids of all ages — a movie that respects playtime, with all its mercurial swings, as only a slight exaggeration of life in the grown-up world. For Max, who returns home with a smidgen of the strength to face his fears, the excursion isn’t an evasion — and neither, provocatively, is the film an escape for its audience.
To a large extent, reality reigns. Up close, the floppy-limbed wild things look like household pets with big, wet eyes and finely detailed fur. The forest and desert landscapes through which Max and the wild things romp are scarcely more spectacular to the kid than that awesome snow fort back home. That the fiercest of the wild things is voiced by Tony Soprano himself — James Gandolfini — might sound like a joke in bad taste, but it’s perfect for fearful Max’s surrogate dad. The scene where Max silently, sadly watches Gandolfini’s terrible-toothed Carol bickering with Lauren Ambrose’s KW is heartbreaking for the unmistakable sense it gives that Max has seen this kind of familial warfare before, and without a happy ending.
An intimate epic, Jonze’s film is nearly unique among modern kid fare for its total lack of condescension to the core audience. Given the chance to ask a pair of wise owls a question in seven words or less, Max gets to the wild heart of things in six: “How do I make everyone okay?” In a sense, the kid’s adventure — sans sadness shield — is a baby step toward understanding that making others “okay” is never gonna happen, not even in a dream. And that’s… okay. Howl if you want to.