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Where the Wild Things Are

The Wild Rumpus Starts

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

How much you appreciate Spike Jonze’s beautiful adaptation of author Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are might depend, more than anything else, on your willingness to be challenged. Unlike many movies aimed at young audiences, this one is neither facile nor sugarcoated. It is uncompromising in its intelligence and unflinching in its depiction of the downside of childhood.

Does that mean kids will feel baffled by it, or threatened by its emotional intensity? I don’t think so. There is sorrow lingering in the hearts of all its characters, even Sendak’s lovingly illustrated monsters, who can be, well, monstrous. But their unhappiness is something kids understand -- the pain of being ignored, of being made to feel unimportant or, worse, invisible.

Max (Max Records) knows the feeling well. At home, he is bullied by his sister’s friends and disciplined sternly (but fairly) by his mother (Catherine Keener), a single parent struggling to raise two little monsters of her own. Max craves attention, sometimes unreasonably -- he’s 9, after all -- and one night he snaps, tearing off into the night. So begins our journey into his fertile imagination.

That is where the Wild Things live, on an island littered with broken homes, literally and figuratively. Max instinctively gravitates toward Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the most rambunctious of the lot and, accordingly, the most destructive. The root of his restlessness? Carol wants his clan to live together as a loving family. Max, eager to please, says he can make it happen.

He can, at first. As the pint-sized leader of Sendak’s mostly gentle giants, Max unites his new family with false promises -- always a worrisome omen -- but united they are, for a time, and noticeably more cheerful. The Utopian fantasy comes crashing down in short order, and the pain returns, exacerbated by Max’s well-intentioned deceptions. That this inevitable turn of events is so deeply affecting speaks to the humanity of the Wild Things themselves.

Each of them, in some small way, represents a facet of Max’s personality, whether it’s depression-prone Carol or soft-spoken Alexander (Paul Dano), a crestfallen goat who quietly complains that nobody listens to him. (Naturally, his protests fall on deaf ears.) It is those all-too-human vulnerabilities, conveyed with artful subtlety by a voice cast that also includes Chris Cooper and Catherine O’Hara, that make the Wild Things every bit as compelling as Max himself.

Credit Jonze and co-author Dave Eggers for crafting such a strong, perceptive drama around characters that might have been made warm, fuzzy and one-dimensional. Considering the economy of Sendak’s storytelling -- his book is only 10 sentences long -- they had the freedom to take their material in any number of directions, and here they pick the road less traveled.

Also credit Jonze for exercising uncommon restraint in his use of CGI: This is a movie that plays well and looks great -- effortlessly authentic for a story so deeply rooted in fantasy. Whether that’s enough to satisfy those expecting a more conventional treatment of Sendak’s book is anybody’s guess, but if you’re up for the challenge, Wild Things is a profoundly rewarding experience.