Next to the table of contents in the new book Heads On and Then We Shoot: The Making of Where the Wild Things Are, there's a list of songs that Spike Jonze says were influential and inspirational in the making of his adaptation of Maurice Sendak's children's classic. Among them are plenty of melancholy mood pieces, including The Smiths' "Cemetry Gates," "Maps" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose lead singer composed original tunes for the film, and perhaps most obviously, Arcade Fire's "Wake Up," which ultimately appeared in Wild Things' theatrical trailer. But in my opinion, the most telling track included on that list was Langley Schools Music Project's devastating cover of The Beach Boys "God Only Knows" sung by a chorus of Canadian schoolchildren in the late 1970s, it captures the deeper sentiment of desperation and loneliness in Brian Wilson's lyrics even as it reverberates with the naïve, wholesome enthusiasm of voices unfamiliar with real heartbreak.
In the best possible way, Jonze's film also harnesses that contradiction: it feels like a grown-up story told by kids, where all of its emotional weight is buried in the story or otherwise ignored because nobody seems to know better than to emphasize it. Bereft of nostalgia, much less a cinematic style that lends itself easily to conventional spectacle, Spike Jonze brings Where the Wild Things Are to life in a way that no one could have possibly expected, but thankfully in one better than they could have ever imagined.
The film stars newcomer Max Records as Max, a sensitive, creative kid who's adjusting uneasily to his parents' divorce. After throwing a temper tantrum when his mom (Catherine Keener) chooses to pay attention to her new "friend" (Mark Ruffalo) instead of Max's latest flight of fancy, he runs out of their house and out into the night. Taking to the sea in a kid-sized sailboat, Max crosses the sea, finally landing on the rocky shore of a mysterious island inhabited by strange, monstrous beasts. But when he proclaims himself their ruler, Max decides he's discovered a place of refuge where he can create his own happiness – that is, until the problems of the real world begin to work their way into the supposed fun of his fantasy kingdom.
I joked with a colleague that an alternate title for the film could have been P.S. Divorce Is Hardest On The Kids, but the truth is I'm not sure I've seen another mainstream movie that better examines the way kids deal with a parental break-up, be it metaphorically or literally. Jonze, who adapted Sendak's book with the help of novelist Dave Eggers, lays the groundwork for Max's odyssey in the opening scenes, not only physically but emotionally: we not only watch him build an igloo, alone, in a neighbor's front yard, but see how he reacts when another kid smashes it in a snowball fight; or later, witness Max's misplaced outrage, his subsequent remorse, and finally, his redemptive creativity in between sequences where he literally constructs bedroom-sized universes where stuffed animals do his bidding.
There's a landscape here that doesn't just presage his physical experiences with the Wild Things, but demonstrates the depths of Max's emotional range – the breadth of which is certainly symptomatic of all kids, but something seldom explored in films about them. The reason this kaleidoscope of reactions is so important, so vital to the film's success, is because each of these individual feelings finds its physical representation later in the story, giving Max a unique and unexpected opportunity to look outside himself and see not only how he really feels, but how those feelings impact the others around him.
Of course, that choice might seem obvious, given the vast wealth of stories where fictional characters function as a stand-in for someone's thoughts or feelings, in both adult and child-themed tales. But Eggers and Jonze do something really remarkable with their realization of those thoughts and feelings by never quite explaining them, and even more importantly, allowing their various "definitions" (Max's petulant side, his nurturing side, his concilatory side, etc.) to commingle in ways that defy the sort of mathematical combination of his various impulses into a "complete" person, instead creating a more realistic (and thus compelling) one.
It certainly helps that Jonze hired a game cast of voice actors to bring life to Max's various sides. As Carol, Max's most dedicated but volatile companion, James Gandolfini (TV's The Sopranos) finds that perfect sort of inarticulate frustration, and that inability to understand - much less deal with - the deterioration of a friendship; as Carol's previous best friend, KW, Lauren Ambrose (Starting Out in the Evening) lends an oblivious sensitivity, a wanderlust to the character among the Wild Things who inspires the most dramatic reactions, even if she doesn't always provide them. And Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), emerging as one of the most interesting and versatile actors of his generation, contributes a comically sad turn as Alexander, a diminutive goat who feels like no one ever listens to him, seldom provides a reason why they should.
But even with so many talented crewmen and –women helping him, Jonze himself is the captain of this particular ship, and he manages to seem assured and confident in the execution of his material even when the film is at its shaggiest. Working with cinematographer Lance Acord, one of the director's longtime collaborators, Jonze makes a deliberate decision to forego hero shots and the sweeping imagery of so-called "epic" filmmaking, shooting primarily with handheld cameras to give each scene an emotional realism that often gets lost in films where spectacle is the priority. By focusing on the intimate and personal interactions between characters, Jonze not only creates a world that seems directly born of Max's imagination, but one where those feelings and thoughts are raw and immediate, seeming fun, scary, and strangely human all at the same time.
Because of that tenuous balance between the exciting and the exasperating, the scary and the sanguine, it remains to be seen whether kids will really identify with Max, since so much of what he goes through is so painful – and especially, because it's woven directly into his behavior rather than discussed and deconstructed. But that's also where it proves the most affecting; because Max's reactions and their motivations seem inadvertent as opposed to calculated, or even emphasized, there's a primal connection the audience shares with his sadness that doesn't need to be addressed in any direct way, and resonates long after he's moved on to his next adventure.
Ultimately, Where the Wild Things Are is most effective because it faithfully recreates the dimensions of childhood experience, but it filters them through the realities of adulthood. As an understated work of spectacle, or maybe a spectacular work of understatement, Jonze's latest film is not only his best to date, but a monstrous achievement in its own right - with or without the big furry creatures.