Obviously, a children's book as short as Maurice Sendak's award-winning Where the Wild Things Are requires a great deal of fleshing out in order to exist as a full-length movie. Luckily, director and co-screenwriter Spike Jonze makes the movie his own by expanding the book's universal themes about a boy learning to work through feelings of anger, sadness, frustration, and fear.
We meet that boy, Max (Max Records), in a hilarious opening scene where he tears through his house chasing after the family pet while growling like a monster. He proceeds to have a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, where his older sister's friends break his homemade igloo and he has to eat dinner with his mother (Catherine Keener) and her new "friend" (Mark Ruffalo). Eventually, Max becomes so overwhelmed he throws a tantrum, runs out of the house, evades his mother's pursuit, and eventually finds himself alone in some trees. After a primal scream, he discovers a boat and sails across churning seas to an island inhabited by the wild things. Although they first threaten to eat Max, he persuades them that he is their king, and convinces them to build a large fort where they can all live together.
Unlike the book, the wild things in the movie have names and distinct personalities: there's Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the creature who seems most in need of having Max be the leader; KW (Lauren Ambrose), who longs to separate from the others; the wise, bird-like Douglas (Chris Cooper); Alexander (Paul Dano), the baby of the group; the neurotic Judith (Catherine O'Hara); and Judith's gentle and measured mate, Ira (Forest Whitaker).
For adults, it's easy to see how the different creatures represent different aspects of Max, but the screenplay, co-written with Dave Eggers, never talks down to the audience by making the subtext explicit -- they respect the fantasy world far too much to be so crass. And the physical world of the wild things is unlike anything in recent memory. Jonze shoots the landscape in a way that makes the terrain tactile -- it certainly looks like a real place with trees and deserts -- and the creatures themselves are a seamless combination of old-fashioned puppetry and state-of-the-art special effects. If he were alive, it's not hard to imagine Jim Henson praising both the creature work and the entire project as a whole.
Of course, the cast also has a great deal to do with making the wild things register as genuine three-dimensional characters. Gandolfini sounds like he has a permanent lump in his throat that's keeping either tears of sadness or screams of anger from bursting out at any moment, Cooper and Whitaker are soothingly warm and calm, and Dano speaks in a heartbreaking little-boy-lost voice that amplifies Alexander's feelings of loneliness. And that is the point of the whole story -- these mysterious beasts verbalize all of Max's difficult emotions and force him to respond so that he learns how to handle them.
While that description may make the whole thing sound like little more than a kiddie therapy session, Jonze never hits you over the head with what it all means, making it possible for you to read into the film whatever you choose. And let's be clear that Jonze aims the film at every age group, not just children. This is a "family film" in the best possible sense -- it is that rare movie that parents and kids can see together, and talk about at great length afterward.