For more than a decade offbeat auteur Spike Jonze, director of surrealist headscratchers Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, dragged his labor of love vision for Maurice Sendak’s celebrated children’s fable about a bedroom busting Odyssey through a troubled boy’s imagination all around town looking for a studio to work with. Universal threatened for a good long time before baulking and ultimately the property ended up in the hands of Warner Bros. Then disaster! Early test footage of some admittedly wonky animatronics found its way online causing uproar and the collective soiling of executive smalls. “Think of the children!” they wailed, as rumors circulated of narrative darkness traumatizing terrified tots at focus group screenings.

While certainly reactionary – the film is nowhere near as scary as some would have you believe – Warner’s concerns were not without merit. Jonze absolutely was not thinking of the children, he was thinking of us. As has been correctly summarized already in several reviews, Where the Wild things Are is not a kids movie. Nor is it an ironic hipster film, the likes of Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. Rather, it is a move aimed at adults about what it was like to be a kid.

Chief amongst the concerns expressed was the question of where exactly the story would come from? Sendak’s source material, while visually splendid, was only nine sentences long, and that perhaps was too little to work with in terms of crafting a full-length feature. Well consider that problem hurdled as Jonze has nailed a simple yet layered narrative that tells an instantly relatable tale of a confused, self-centered boy fumbling his way towards empathy. Placing paramount importance on the role of imagination in this story Jonze labors tirelessly during the set-up over the intricate details of play; Lego friends, matchstick ships, and blanket forts. Max (brilliantly played by young Max Records) constructs an igloo in his yard, orders his backyard fence around, and tears through his non-specific neighborhood with all the unfocused, carefree energy of, well, a wild thing.

But, as so often happens, the joy turns to tears after some rough play with some older kids. Max’s constant need for comfort and reassurance from his mother (Katherine Keener making the most of an underwritten role) clashes with her very real-world concerns over her job and their future, and the discovery of a strange man sharing his couch that night is too much, causing an torrential outpouring of pent-up emotion in the form of rage as Max takes off into the night. After navigating a sea of treacherous storms in a tiny sailboat Max arrives at the land of the Wild Things, where he wows them with a flight of fancy about the time he conquered the Vikings by making their head’s explode, and is anointed king.

As dysfunctional a family as you will ever see the kingdom of the Wild Things; Carol (James Gandolfini), Ira & Judith (Forest Whitaker & Catherine O’Hara), Alexander (Paul Dano), Douglas (Chris Cooper) and K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) is one of emotional immediacy whereby Max essentially attempts to govern different parts of his own Id. Adrift in a swirling maelstrom of unresolved conflict they don’t know how to make peace with themselves or each other. Like Max they are representative of an age where you feel only in stereo and Technicolor.

As Max arrives they’re in the process of destroying their village and moving on in what has become a ritual for resolving conflict. They might look like Muppets who have been pumped full of steroids, but the intelligent script and wonderfully expressive voice acting ensures that their pain is ours’, too. At night they worry if the sun will rise the next morning, and during the day they fret that the island is slowly turning to dust, and what comes after dust? As their King, the group looks to Max for answers and reassurance, but Max has none and returns home wiser and tempered, realizing that the role of a parent is much harder than he ever realized. It’s not exactly subtle, but then nothing about being a child ever is, and that’s sort of the point.

As a kid’s movie it doesn’t work. Under `5’s will almost certainly find the random, sometimes violent, outbursts of emotion unsettling. Nippers 5-10 will likely interpret the overall sense of melancholy as simply dull. Older kids and teens who have yet to mature past the point of self-awareness will doubtless dismiss it with a collective “WTF?!” But as a nostalgia trip for grown-ups who can recall the pre-digital age of make-believe the picture is nothing short of enchanting and come the credits we guarantee there will not be a dry eye in the house.

Starring: Max Records, James Gandolfini, Katherine Keener, Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose

Director: Spike Jonze

Runtime: 94 Minutes

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Rating: PG

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