Most children’s movies combine dumbed-down versions of adult plots with kid-friendly pacing, loud noises and bright visuals. Spike Jonze ’s riff on Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are  does the exact opposite. Its rough-edged, slow-moving story, crafted by Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers , feels like something that could emerge from an actual 9-year-old’s imagination, while its style offers eye and ear candy mainly to adults. Whether the result is a “kids’ movie” depends on the kid. (Small ones will probably get scared; older ones could be bored … or enthralled.) For nostalgia-prone grownups, though, this is a film of rare beauty that will remind them there’s nothing in childhood to be nostalgic about.
Sendak’s book has more pictures than words and a simple, resonant theme: Inside every little boy is a wild thing, and sometimes it needs a good rumpus. Jonze and Eggers have expanded Max’s dreamtime voyage to the island of Wild Things into a saga that’s like a downbeat, emo version of The Wizard of Oz.
Max (played without affectation by Max Records ) is an angry kid, but in a pretty average way. He likes to build forts, but his single mom (Catherine Keener ) doesn’t always have time to appreciate them, and his older sister (Pepita Emmerichs ) is busy with her new teen friends. When Mom proclaims him “out of control,” Max runs off and ends up … well, you know where. On a desolate island among giant, hairy beasts, he feels sort of scared and sort of at home, and he quickly bonds with a Wild Thing named Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini ) who has temper issues, too.
Any adult can see where this is going, especially when another Wild Thing (voiced by Lauren Ambrose ) starts to act a lot like Max’s sullen sister. But the great thing about the script is that it’s subtle — far more so than Eggers’ and Vendela Vida ’s screenplay for last summer’s Away We Go . Just like a real rambling story told by a kid, Max’s experience with the Wild Things is part self-therapy, part fun, part randomness. It has no genre, lurching from comedy to whimsy to horror without transitions. What’s cool about Wild Things is that they sleep in a hairy, primal pile. What’s not so cool about them is that, without warning, they could eat you.
All this happens in a startlingly real setting — the island is an autumnal woodland, messy and bleak yet washed with magic sunset light. The Wild Things have the stiff tails of puppets and mobile, computer-animated faces — an uncannily effective combination. Jonze often shoots from Max’s point of view, and adults may be jolted by scenes that carry them back to the forgotten experience of, say, riding on a parent’s back.
Anyone who believes children are “innocent” won’t like the film — it shows us deep veins of rage, guilt and sorrow already running through Max’s emotional landscape. He worries that his mom’s boyfriend will steal her from him; he worries the sun will go out. He finds comfort in wild rumpuses, but someone always ends up getting hurt, just as someone ends up feeling lonely and ostracized at every great party. Under its strange, lumpy surface, this children’s fantasy isn’t an escape for adults: It’s what we deal with every day. And that’s why its underlying message — that love still matters, always matters — hits home.