*Where the Wild Things Are (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Kimball's Peak Three, Tinseltown
You could argue without contradiction that Where the Wild Things Are is the most ambitious film ever inspired by a 10-sentence-long picture-book — but that sentiment doesn't do justice to this prickly, hilarious, devastatingly emotional work of art.
Maurice Sendak's classic story certainly hinted at the complex psychology of childhood via its rambunctious, wolf-costumed protagonist. Co-writer/director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), however, has found the feature concept lurking beneath Sendak's minimalist text — and burrowed straight into the heart of a troubled young psyche trying to understand itself.
That psyche's owner is 10-year-old Max (Max Records), whom we meet while he's chasing the family dog with a fork. And that's pretty typical: He's angry about everything, from his parents' divorce to the lack of caring he sees in his older sister. So when Max acts out with his mother's new boyfriend, it inspires a reaction from mom (Catherine Keener) — and sends Max running out the front door toward an island inhabited by strange creatures.
Jones and co-scripter Dave Eggers do a brilliantly efficient job of leading us into Max's churning mind. From a frustrating run-in with his sister's friends, to the casually apocalyptic comments by his teacher about the sun's finite life span, Max's world is defined by a sense of powerlessness.
So it's no surprise that in another world — even one with large and potentially frightening natives — Max fashions himself their king. And they seem to need a king, particularly an insecure fellow named Carol (James Gandolfini), who, when Max arrives, is demolishing homes, enraged at the recent departure of his sweetheart, KW (Lauren Ambrose). It's almost as though the beasts are working through the very same issues Max needs to work through.
And it's also nowhere near that simplistic. Jonze and Eggers refuse to establish easy one-to-one correspondence between any denizen of the Wild Things' world and Max's — Carol serves as father figure, at times more like Max himself. The creature Judith (Catherine O'Hara) helps Max to articulate his frustrations with his mother, and Max comforts the smaller Alexander (Paul Dano), who feels that nobody listens. All the creatures are parts of Max, and parts of his external life. Yet all are also magically and perfectly distinctive.
Jonze risks telling this story using the old-fashioned, pre-CGI approach of costumed actors playing the creatures, but the combination of imposing bulk and tactile cuddliness perfectly echoes the mixture of love and fear Max feels for his family. The voice actors are terrific, particularly Gandolfini, who makes Carol as sympathetic and mixed-up as Max himself. Their uneasy relationship becomes the pivot point of Where the Wild Things Are; when Carol and Max share a howl of mutual grief and loss, don't be surprised if you're bawling.
It's hard to know what kids will make of a movie that, while fundamentally about them, isn't really for them. There's enough episodic fun to keep them entertained, but even when the characters are wrestling with each other, the filmmakers are wrestling with ideas far more challenging than the "be true to yourself" platitudes of so many kid-flicks. Max needs to confront his anger over his home not being the perfect, safe haven he wants it to be, and his guilt over feeling angry at the people he loves. In a world not occupied by humans, Where the Wild Things Are watches with joy and compassion as Max gives himself — and the people around him — permission to be human.