"Where the Wild Things Are" is based on the celebrated children's story by Maurice Sendak, but many die-hard fans of the 1963 picture book might wind up disappointed. One of the more enduring traits of Sendak's tale is its malleability. "Wild Things" the book is sort of a Rorschach test for the reader. Unruly Max is banished to his room by his mother. The bedroom magically transforms into a mythical world where Max sails to an island of big, hairy, yellow-eyed monsters.
But the boy is not frightened. The creatures crown Max king, and all enjoy a wild rumpus until homesickness eventually compels him to return home. Is it a Freudian parable? A fantasy of childhood empowerment? A dark and scary yarn? The book's brevity invites all sorts of personal connections.
For director Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation"), that 10-sentence story is a portal to not-so-idyllic truths of childhood. Here, the Wild Things, literally creations of Max's id, pulse with psychological richness. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers ("Away We Go") fashion a strange and beautiful journey through Max's egotism and emotional volatility.
Played by newcomer Max Records, the Max of "Wild Things" is a raw nerve of neediness, imagination and unchecked anxiety. He can switch from exuberant to petulant in a matter of seconds. He is sweet, sullen and given to bursts of rage. In other words, Max is a real kid, not the kind typically found in moviedom.
Similarly, his home life is grounded in the reality of incidents that, in the eyes of a self-absorbed child, seem like horrible wrongs. He builds a frontyard igloo that is destroyed by his sister's friends. He finds a little comfort from his overworked single mother (Catherine Keener, "The Soloist"), but then feels betrayed when she cuddles with a boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo, "The Brothers Bloom") on the sofa.
The indignities mount. Max has a tantrum while the family gets ready for dinner. "What's wrong with you?" screams his exasperated mom. "You're out of control!" As if to prove it, Max bites her and flees the house, sobbing uncontrollably.
From then on, we are in Max's dreamscape. He hops on a boat that takes him to an island populated by six huge, horned, sharp-toothed Wild Things. Marvels of live-action and computer animation, the creatures are manifestations of Max's conflicted emotions. The most complicated, Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini, TV's "The Sopranos"), is alternately needy and belligerent, and he takes an immediate shine to Max. The others include caustic Judith (Catherine O'Hara, "Away We Go"), glum Alexander (Paul Dano, "Taking Woodstock") and free-spirited KW (Lauren Ambrose, "RV"), on whom Carol has a crush.
More moody than menacing, these Wild Things rally round Max and crown him their king. "Will you keep out all the sadness?" they ask. Max insists he can, indulging his naive belief that such a thing is possible. Indeed, the Wild Things reflect the boy's desire to make sense of the scary feelings swirling inside him. But because he sees his jealousies and hurts in Carol and the others, the boy gets an inkling of something altogether new: empathy.
But "Where the Wild Things Are," thankfully, is about emotional honesty, not life lessons. The languorously paced film is not driven by plot. Things happen " Max and the Wild Things build a fort, have a dirt-clod fight, etc. " but what the characters do is secondary to how each event uncovers a web of hopes and fears. And the filmmakers' understanding of childhood rings with rare authenticity.
The movie's haunting, occasionally surreal atmospherics are heightened by across-the-board terrific production, from Lance Acord's sun-dappled cinematography to a melancholy score by Karen O. and Carter Burwell.
The performances are remarkable. Gandolfini is especially superb, somehow imbuing Carol's bluster with a heartbreaking insecurity. But Records is the standout here. In his first acting performance (he has since been in "The Brothers Bloom"), he rifles through a wealth of emotions. Most impressive, he does it while playing off of what were people lumbering around in heavy, foamy costumes. If that's not wild, I don't know what is.