Maurice Sendak’s spare, poetic, and deeply wise book has been lovingly unfolded into a movie about the child who lives in all of us, brave and fearful, generous and needy, angry and peaceful, confident and insecure, adventuresome and very glad to come home. The movie may challenge children who are used to bright, shiny colors and having everything explained to them but if they allow it, Max and his story will bloom inside them as it will for anyone open to its profound pleasures.
The book’s opening line is as well-remembered as “Call me Ishmael” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him ‘WILD THING.’” Those who wondered what prompted Max’s mischief will accompany him as he experiences the jubilation of creating his own cozy space, a snowball-stocked igloo, and as he joyously takes on his sister’s friends in a snowball fight, only to be inconsolably crushed when they carelessly smash his icy lair and then leave without him.
There has never been a more evocative portrayal on film of the purity, the intensity, the transcendence of childhood emotions. The hallmark of maturity is the way we temper our feelings; it is not a compliment when we call someone “childish” for not being able to do so. Our experiences — and our parents — teach us that life is complex, that sorrow and joy are always mixed, and that we can find the patience to respond to frustration without breaking anything. But one reason that we mis-remember childhood as idyllic is the longing for the ferocity of childhood pleasures. Jonze and his Max (Max Records) bring us straight into the immediacy and open-heartedness of a child’s emotions.
We know we are in a child’s world even before the movie begins, with scrawled-on opening credits and then a breathtaking, child’s eye opening bursting with sensation, all the feelings rushing together. The film brilliantly evokes the feeling of childhood with the same freshness and intimacy director Spike Jonze showed in the influential videos he made when he was barely out of his teens. Max’s mother is beautifully played by Catherine Keener who makes clear to us, if not to Max, her devotion and sensitivity in the midst of concerns about work and a budding romance. His incoherent fury at her being distracted, including a kiss from a date who seems to think he has the right to tell Max how to behave almost hurtles him from the house, into the night, where he runs and runs, and then to a boat, where he sails and sails, until he comes to the land of the Wild Things.
They begin to attack him, but Max tames them with his bravado and imagination and he becomes the king, promising to do away with loneliness and make everyone happy. The book’s brief story blooms here as Max interacts with the Wild Things (voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, and Chris Cooper). Each of them represents or reflects Max’s emotions or experiences. They love sleeping in a big pile and are thrilled with Max’s plans for a fort. But Max learns how difficult it is to be responsible for the happiness of others, and before long, like other children in stories who have traveled to lands filled with magic and wonder, he longs for home.
The movie’s look is steeped in the natural world, with forests and beaches, and intricate Waldorf-school-style constructions that evoke a sense of wonder. The screenplay by Dave Eggers and Jonze locates the heart of Sendak’s story. They have not turned it into a movie; they have made their own movie as a tribute to Sendak, to childhood, to parenthood, to the Wild Things we all are at times, and to the home that waits for us when those times are over.