Forget every sugary kid-stuff cliché Hollywood shoves at you. The defiantly untamed Where the Wild Things Are is a raw and exuberant mind-meld between Maurice Sendak, 81, the Caldecott Medal winner who wrote and illustrated the classic 1963 book, and Spike Jonze, 39, the Oscar-nominated director (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) who honors the explosive feelings of childhood by creating a visual and emotional tour de force. The movie barrels out at you like a nine-year-old boy filled to bursting with joys, fears and furies he can't articulate.
The boy is Max, played by Max Records, 12, in a vibrantly alive performance that is surely a high-water mark for child actors. Max is in a dark place called home, where his divorced mother (the ever-superb Catherine Keener) is distracted by work and a new lover (Mark Ruffalo). Jumping on a table in the white wolf suit he wears like a second skin, Max rears up like an animal. "I hate you, I'll eat you up," Max yells at his mother, biting her hard before bolting from home in search of an undiscovered island where wild creatures roam and play drives out pain. Or so Max thinks.
Sendak's book consists of a mere 10 sentences. The challenge for Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers (Away We Go) is to flesh out the tale to movie length. Jonze started by breaking rules (there would be no manageable Disney version of Max). From the moment he climbs into a tiny sailboat and heads out to sea (a departure from Sendak, who had Max's bedroom morph into the island), Max declares himself king of this wild world.
How to film the noise inside Max's head? The easy way would be to go the animation route. Not for Jonze. The director and his gifted team, including hand-held-camera master Lance Acord, traveled to rugged Australia and shot the action live with puppeteers inside nine-foot creature costumes.
Per tradition, the voice work was done by name actors. James Gandolfini excels as Carol, the creature leader who Max discovers tearing down his home right after he builds it. Like Max, Carol has commitment issues. Lauren Ambrose voices KW, the redheaded loner. Chris Cooper takes on the beaked Douglas. Catherine O'Hara puts the sass into Judith, who henpecks the loyal Ira (Forest Whitaker). And Paul Dano moans touchingly at being the shortest creature, the goat-horned Alexander.
That's where tradition ends. Instead of recording each actor singly in a sound booth, Jonze gathered them together, encouraging howling and rabble-rousing. The spontaneity is infectious. Computers were used to create facial expressions for the creatures, with the actors themselves as models.
For all the money spent, the film's success is best measured by its simplicity and the purity of its innovation. Jonze has filmed a fantasy as if it were absolutely real, allowing us to see the world as Max sees it, full of beauty and terror. The brilliant songs, by Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and the Kids, enhance the film's power to pull you in as Max literally hides in the belly of a beast, builds a fort and issues a call to arms: "I know something that always cheers me up — a war."
Jonze never belabors points about violence or the Freudian nature of identity and rebellion. Whether Max's cheeks flush with euphoria or rage, our identification with him is complete. Jonze brings all the senses into play. You can practically feel the animal heat when homesick Max falls asleep in a "real pile" of snoozing wild things. But the creatures don't coddle Max, and the film follows suit. By staring without blinking into the yellow eyes of these wild things, Max begins to recognize something of himself. Jonze doesn't blink either. That's why this adaptation of Sendak's rigorously unsentimental story is a moving tribute to both their talents.