By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Children in general have aged since 1963 when Maurice Sendak published Where the Wild Things Are. Families were nuclear then, being sent to one's room without supper was a lesson and childish rage was a phase, not a syndrome medicated into submission.
It isn't only appropriate but necessary that a book composed of 338 words from simpler times should be adapted for the movies into something it isn't. If any filmmaker can take material off its intended path to wondrous new places, it's Spike Jonze, who turned a book about flowers into a farcical Adaptation, and John Malkovich's mind into something like everyone's consciousness.
What astounds about Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are is how much it reaps emotionally from Sendak's slim premise. By making the hyperactive hero Max into a modern child with tireless imagination, Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers haven't hijacked an idea but embellished it. The result is a fairy tale for present and former children, a bedtime story inspiring sweeter dreams for all.
Max, played by guileless newcomer Max Records, is a suburban child, saddled (in his initial thinking) with a working single mother (Catherine Keener) seeking a replacement father figure, and an older sister maturing into absence. Abandonment issues are at the heart of Max's tantrum sending him to his room without supper.
Sendak's Max clearly escaped reality in his bedroom. Jonze sends him out the window, down the street, through the woods to a sailboat that doesn't really exist, embarking on a voyage to an island only in his head. Everything Max says or hears is reality filtered through imagination, from echoing his mother's orders for kindly monsters, to the brief sight of a neighborhood dog in a desert.
The monsters are Max's rambunctious doppelgangers, creating fun when destroying things and building elaborate forts. They're also Max's take on adults, enjoyable when they do what he wishes yet distracted by grownup problems. Jonze and Eggers' most severe break from Sendak's book is making the monsters speak. Since Max makes up their words, what he hears in real life is what he hears — and gains sympathy for — in fantasy.
There's the longing of hulking Carol (voice of James Gandolfini) for K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), the love he lost. Judith (Catherine O'Hara) is the dismissive, almost threatening sort, like Max's sister. Alexander (Paul Dano) is the boy's internalized feeling of inadequacy and being ignored. Ira (Forest Whitaker) is the nicer side Max wishes he could show.
The vocal performances are pitch perfect, and Jonze's brilliant decision to use furry costumed mega-puppets and minimal CGI technology keeps them within Max's imagination capacity. Too much technology would spoil this delicate balance of immaturity and growth that must be on Max's own terms. It's nothing like Sendak wrote, yet captures his wild-but-wiser-now spirit — especially in the film's touching final shot.
Where the Wild Things Are is a rare occasion when cinema expands literature, although not at the expense of Sendak's simple, classic message. It's the same lesson learned by Dorothy Gale and E.T., that no matter how far away life and loved ones seem, there's no place like home, where the wild things aren't.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.