Perhaps the most daunting challenge for director Spike Jonze in adapting Maurice Sendak’s beloved story was the realization that the entire book contained less than 10 sentences, extended over 20 pages. Yet, working with Dave Eggers, along with Sendak, he has visualized the fantasy world that has sparked so many children’s imaginations over the years, mixing live-action with state-of-the-art puppetry and computer animation.
Nine year-old Max (Max Records) is frustrated and angry. His parents are divorced. His teenage sister is more interested in her boyfriends and his hard-working mother (Catherine Keener) is stressed-out. No one has time for him so, in utter frustration, Max puts on his wolf suit and runs away.
Yearning for a place where he’s the center of attention, he sails off for the adventure of a lifetime, landing on an island where meets a variety of gigantic, growling creatures and becomes their King. There’s Carol (James Gandolfini), a natural leader, along with his dependable rooster-like sidekick, Douglas (Chris Cooper); KW (Lauren Ambrose) is a maternal presence; caustic Judith (Catherine O’Hara) with her companion Ira (Forest Whitaker), who loves to punch holes in things; and, last but not least, goat-horned Alexander (Paul Dano) whom nobody listens to. Obviously, they’re all bestial manifestations of Max’s conflicting, turbulent emotions, and the reality of being in charge isn’t as easy as he thought, particularly when it comes to being a family and building “a place where only the things you want to happen, would happen.”
This is the third feature film from gifted Spike Jonze, who demonstrated his unique cinematic style with “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” He ventures into dark, cryptic territory here. Newcomer Max Records makes the aching heart of the childhood story totally believable, supported by acting veterans, particularly James Gandolfini. And shooting near Melbourne, Australia was an inspired choice, particularly the desolate desert scenes. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Where the Wild Things Are” is an endearing, escapist 8, an engaging story for all ages, earning a place of honor among family-friendly films.