Where the Wild Things Are: Sendak with Sensitivity

With subtlety and sympathy, Spike Jonze brings Maurice Sendak's classic kids' book Where the Wild Things Are to life

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Warner Bros.

Carol (voice by James Gandolfini) and Max (Max Records) in the Spike Jonze film Where the Wild Things Are

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This is where Jonze unleashes his considerable creativity. The beasts are recognizable from Sendak's pages, but Jonze gives them names and distinct personalities that connect to aspects of Max's psyche and to the people he loves. (Freud would adore this movie.) They are vast, feathered, horned, clawed, beaked and definitely wild--irrational and dangerous, even when showing affection--and Jonze uses their threatening bulk as well as their capacity for cruelty to remind us that Max's taming of them is only temporary. For any child, it is near impossible to stay king of anything, even in fantasy.

James Gandolfini voices Carol, who most closely represents Max. Carol is a builder. He longs to create worlds, but as soon as their perfection falters in any way, he wants to tear them all down. "I like the way you destroy things," he tells Max when they first meet. It's a haunting performance, full of need and anger.

Lauren Ambrose voices KW, who, like Max's sister, is being pulled away by new friends. (When we finally lay eyes on them, it's the movie's closest thing to a joke.) She gives Max the tenderness and protection he wants from his sister, while helping him understand how oppressive his own love can be. The others include a goat-beast (Paul Dano), who represents Max's rage and impotence; a somewhat wise bird-beast (Chris Cooper), probably the embodiment of Max's unseen father; the petty, devious Judith (Catherine O'Hara); and her gentle but helpless mate Ira (Forest Whitaker). Animation would have been a far easier choice here, but Jonze's instinct toward verisimilitude was astute. By setting his story in real landscapes, he respects and heightens the peculiarity and tension of Max's experience, whether he's shivering in his wet wolf suit or running wild with the beasts in the forest.

Jonze's biggest challenge lies in sustaining the movie's forward momentum during Max's time with the wild things. At a certain point, I felt I'd learned enough and was ready to go home to Keener's anchoring presence. It's not that Jonze is overindulgent; it's that he's so thoroughly devoted to exploring Max's pain and joys, sometimes to the detriment of narrative. But I'll let my own child make the call on whether it's too long. I'm taking him, although I'd doubted I would, having expected the hipster's Max. But this is a Max for everyone, for all the wild things and those who love and respect them. There was nothing to fear after all.

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