We are not, I admit, a Where the Wild Things Are family; we're In the Night Kitchen folks. Sendak's fantasy of naked Mickey's romp in a New York City kitchen offers an airplane ride, guitar-playing, and the promise of breakfast cake; it depicts a child's solo adventure, but leads him gently back to bed at the end. It is the perfect story for my airplane-drawing, music-loving, kitchen-happy boys. Where the Wild Things Are, with Max's fierce temper and the Wild Things' raucous rumpussing, despite its blue-green cross-hatched beauty and peaceful ending, just scares my kids. There was no question of my movie-shy children attending the new film adaptation by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, especially after I heard them clarify that Where the Wild Things Are is not a film for children, but a film about childhood.
And for that, I love it. The opening credits are tagged with a child's scrawl, Max leaving his mark on the production company's logo, before we see him in the famous wolf suit (updated with black Converse sneakers), racing down the stairs growling after his barking dog. The scene's filmed with a handheld camera, so it's shaky and tight on the action as we watch the exuberant dog and boy. The film establishes quickly that Max, played with just the right mix of wild energy and vulnerability by Max Records, is a loner and a sensitive kid, whose eyes go wide with worry when his teacher blithely talks about the sun's death; the words continue to ring in Max's ears long after he has left school. At home, a snowball fight with his big sister and her friends goes suddenly bad; they stomp down his igloo and drive away, laughing. Max's tears turn quickly to anger; he rages into his sister's room and stomps around, breaking a toothpick heart he made for her and then instantly regretting it. The pattern continues with his mom, played by Catherine Keener. A single mom, stressed about her job, she's too distracted by her date to pay attention to Max and his bedroom fort. So he climbs onto the kitchen counter for attention. "Feed me, woman!" he roars, and when her package of frozen corn pushes him over the edge, he bites her on the shoulder and they stare at each other a moment, both shocked and hurt, before she shouts, "What is wrong with you? You're out of control!" and Max runs out of the house.
In this and other ways, the film expands quite a bit on the picture book; one could argue that even this, giving Max a family and a back story, is unnecessary but it's also all in the spirit of the book, and most importantly, consistent with a young child's personality. He rages and he's chagrined; he pushes too far and then runs away in regret. Leaving the house is, some critics have argued, an unforgivable change from the book, in which his room grows into the forest. And I was looking forward to seeing his bedroom, which is perfectly propped with a rubber-band ball, a globe, cardboard tube constructions, a bird's nest and Lego creations, shift and grow into the world of his adventure -- it seemed the perfect application of film animation. But the film, having already decided (with the snowball fight and the school) to open up the book and give Max an outside, takes full advantage of it, and Max sails in and out of days, over a deep dark sea and through a sky full of pinprick stars, to the land where the Wild Things are.
At first, I was captivated by the look of the Wild Things -- their beautifully expressive eyes and wrinkly noses perfectly translated from page to screen -- and had fun sorting out the different personalities. The book's unnamed, undifferentiated group is now a set of prickly individuals, all beautifully cast: bossy but insecure Judith (Catherine O'Hara) and her eager-to-please partner, Ira (Forest Whitaker); the quiet, overlooked Alexander (Paul Dano) and the reliable Douglass (Chris Cooper); petulant KW (Lauren Ambrose) and, the heart of the group, the tough but fretful Carol (James Gandolfini). I loved how Max convinces the group that his small size is an advantage, his powers able to slip through the cracks of any fort or armor; when the skeptical Judith challenges him, asking what he'd do if someone sealed up the cracks, he dazzles her with goofy, irrefutable kid logic, insisting that he could use re-crackers and even double re-crackers to push through. It's such fun to hear them talk, these creatures who are, like children everywhere, so direct; "Hey weird little guy," Carol says to Max, "There's a spark to your work that can't be taught." Their rumpus is boisterous, the amazing combination of pounding strength and delicacy displayed by these huge puppets perfectly underscored by Carter Burwell and Karen O's soundtrack of pulsing guitars, high vocals and kid whoops. As the rumpus ends and the Wild Things tumble into a furry pile to sleep, Carol comments happily, "He started things off right, our king. That was great. That was fun. We forgot how to have fun."
But it's lines like that, and KW's saying of her friendship with Carol just "It's complicated," that ring false to me in a film about childhood. Kids get bored and tetchy, of course, but this level of self-consciousness about emotions and relationships is a more mature developmental stage. Carol takes Max to see his special secret place, where he's built a model of the Wild Things world, complete with delicate, snow-tipped stick mountains and tiny Wild Things figures; it's a place where only the things you want to have happen, Carol says, were supposed to happen, but his friends quarreled and lost interest. "Do you know what it feels like when all your teeth are falling out and they're really far apart, and one day you don't have any teeth anymore? Well, it was like that." This slow middle of Where The Wild Things Are digs into young adolescent angst so deeply that I leaned over to my husband Tony and whispered, "This feels so much like middle school that I'm not sure I can bear it!"
Like any group of friends, the allegiances between the Wild Things are both strong and shifting, and Max discovers quickly that his role is partly to navigate the treacherous waters and find a project that will bring the group together. They begin to build a fort, an amazing creation that will be part castle, part mountain, and part ship, with its own detective agency, ice cream parlor, and language; the building is fun and energetic until it's not, so then Max suggests a war, a revision of the snow ball fight, this time with dirt clods. This also delights all the creatures until it, too, starts to go wrong, with squabbles about the rules of the fight. Doubt creeps in about Max's kingly powers; he tries to entertain them with the goofy robot dance we saw him do for his mom, but it just puzzles them. "Somebody broke the king!" Ira worries, and Judith scoffs, "I don't get it. Oh wait, I do. It's stupid." Carol gets so angry he threatens to eat Max, and Max runs away, taking refuge by climbing inside KW's stomach. After the threat has passed, Max emerges from KW's mouth, wet and subdued; the kids in the theater groaned, "gross," but the odd birth sparks Max's epiphany. It's not a king this family needs at all; "I wish you guys had a mom."
It's one of the most familiar tropes in stories for children and young adults: show the hero an alternative to his flawed family, one that will push him to a new level of maturity and understanding, and then send him home where he can now better accept his own family, and his place in it. So Max leaves. He makes a toothpick heart for Carol, reminiscent of the one he'd once made his big sister, and KW, his Wild Thing mother, hugs him and turns the book's threatening shout into a murmur, "Don't go. I'll eat you up, I love you so." The music picks up now, and the sad mood lifts as the Wild Things stand on the beach roaring their goodbyes to Max, who howls back at them, climbs back into his sailboat, and then with a big smile on his face, heads home.
The film ends without any dialogue. Max sails back, in and out of days, and leaps ashore to run home. When a dog barks at him, he barks joyfully back. He creeps into the house to find his mother waiting for him; they share a long hug, and sit together as Max wolfs down his dinner, a big piece of chocolate cake, and a glass of milk. Then, in one final shift from the book, Max puts his own mother to sleep with his quiet gaze. His look shot deep into my heart as I realized the true audience for this movie: parents who will be reminded of late childhood's big emotions, and kids who have outgrown the book and so think they are too old for this beautiful film. Convince them that they are wrong and take them with you.