Call of the Wild

Highly Anticipated 'Where the Wild Things Are' Resonates Deeply as a Timeless Coming-of-Age Story

Matt Nettheim, Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy

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A decade in the making, Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are" has finally arrived. For those holding their breaths in anticipation, the film does not replicate the minimalist brilliance of Maurice Sendak's 1963 children's classic; what it does accomplish, though, is successfully expand on the book's feverishly imaginative vision, fleshing out its characters and touching on the sensitive chords of childhood angst. In doing so, Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers have translated 338 words and a wealth of iconic images into a 94-minute cinematic carousel that may end up as one of the year's most emotionally affecting motion pictures.

The film's opening sequence is as flawless of a portrait of a young boy as contemporary moviemaking has offered. Max (Max Records) is a nine-year-old whose vivid imagination is matched only by his indignation towards the realities of the world: His sister has forsaken him for her companions, his mother (Catherine Keener) entertains a new boyfriend and his teacher claims the solar system has an expiration date. In response, Max does what only a child can: He tears through the house in a wolf suit, bounding up and down stairways to unleash his silent frustrations. His hyperactivity is matched by Jonze's breathless camera, creating a powerful intimacy between director and subject.

Appalled at his behavior, Max's mother attempts to calm him down, a gesture he violently refuses before bursting out of the house in a flash, boarding a boat and setting out for the open sea. Here, Jonze executes the film's transition from routine to surreal with remarkable elegance. Arriving at a mysterious island, Max befriends a host of 10-foot-tall monsters and, seizing the opportunity to fulfill his (and every other boy's) dream, declares himself king. "Let the wild rumpus start!" he yells with authoritative gusto, sending the beasts on a feisty rampage through the forest, bellowing with affection for their newly crowned leader.

Imbued with life through intricate puppetry techniques, Jonze's wild things are at first intimidating, then endearing: capable of brutish roughness they also brim with tact and charm. Their island is a primitive utopia, and Max immerses himself into his new home with unbridled enthusiasm. He relates to the sensitive Carol (James Gandolfini) and the freewheeling KW (Lauren Ambrose), resists the tempestuous fits of Judith (Catherine O'Hara) and sympathizes with the marginalized Alexander (Paul Dano). Together, the voice actors do a marvelous job in carrying the film, even as its narrative nosedives into a sea of complications that threatens to destroy the monsters' tentative union.

In past interviews, Maurice Sendak has described the writing process of "Where the Wild Things Are" as a "personal exorcism." No surprise, given the original book's phantasmagoric imagery and simple but haunting sentences. In a similar light, Jonze's film adaptation is no less of a courageous feat. The impulsively creative Max seems like an extension of the punk auteur of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation"; Jonze's omnipresent signature becomes even more pronounced as the film comes to a close. From Max's tearful departure from his fantasy abode to his return into the arms of his relieved mother, the denouement is unmistakably personal.

What really works here is the film's poignant coming-of-age allegory-in short, the realization that there's really no place like home. Languorous as the film's middle feels, "Where the Wild Things Are" is redeemed by the sincerity of its performances and the sheer impact of its opening and closing statements. By tapping into the timeless appeal of his beloved source material, Spike Jonze has created a film that's enchanting and personal enough to revitalize the child within all of us.

David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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