Spike Jonze is a master of the mind trip. Whether directing stories of head games gone haywire (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), subverting societal ideas of adult behavior as producer of the Jackass series, or staging a psuedo-serious public dance performance--as seen in Fatboy Slim's 1999 video for "Praise You"--he has been a constant source of consternation to straightforward thinkers. With the release of the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, based on the lean but well-loved picture book by Maurice Sendak, the text of which amounted to only 10 sentences, Jonze demonstrates that his psychic cinematic perambulations are not necessarily suitable for the PG set.
Using the book as a bare-bones basis for the story, Where the Wild Things Are follows Max (Max Records), a rambunctious, imaginative 10-year-old who has little supervision and engages in tempestuous tantrums. After a devastating snow fight with his older sister's friends and being threatened by his mother's (the fantastic Catherine Keener) new male companion, Max dons his favorite wolf suit, stages a scene and runs away into the night. Through his fertile imagination, Max encounters a bereft dory, climbs aboard and sails into a storm that carries him to the land of the Wild Things. After convincing the massive creatures of his magical prowess, Max is made their king and invents a series of games and crafty capers to ensure their loyalty. But the Wild Things (voiced by the likes of James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara and Forest Whitaker), while temporarily tamed by Max's bravado, are children writ large, prone to the changing winds of whimsy, and Max's continued safety among them may only last as long as his next planned adventure.
Where the Wild Things Are is not a children's movie. Despite its family-friendly rating and picture-book origins, the melodic pacing and sophisticated subtext will leave most young viewers out of their depth. They may enjoy the fantastic creature design--a seamless mixture of CG and Henson-created hair suits--and the amusing antics of the wild rumpus, but the film's ideas and intent are decidedly adult. The inspired screenplay, co-written by Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers, is complex, deft and frequently unfathomable. The Wild Things, a mindless herd in the book, have unique and volatile personalities. While having the disposition of children, ready to play at a moment's notice, their emotional and mental complexities--exclusion, depression, unrequited love--firmly inhabit the adult world, a realm of maturity as foreign and unknowable to Max as the zoology of the creatures themselves. Eggers and Jonze never give us many particulars of the Wild Things' troubles, their struggles underscoring the uncertainty of Max's position as their king. We can never quite forget that these lumbering giants are feral animals, their sometimes petty temperaments leading to violent destruction.
But all this heaviness is largely intangible, tucked in the corners of the film. At the forefront is Max's incredible journey. The world of the Wild Things is remarkable. Filmed primarily in Australia, this hidden island has a forest, desert, warrens of tunnels and stunning Andy Goldsworthy-like stick structures. It's an ideal playground, beautifully lensed by cinematographer Lance Acord. The spooky-sweet soundtrack, composed by Jonze's girlfriend and Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen Orzolek, is a marvelous mixture of ululating war cries and soft whisper-songs. While the artistic decision to turn a child's fiction into an art-house meditation on childhood loneliness may not win Jonze any new fans, Where the Wild Things Are is an impeccably crafted movie. The hidden intimations and profound ponderings of the screenplay may leave some viewers unimpressed and disappointed, but as a creative, esoteric riff on a classic story, Where the Wild Things Are is a visionary success.