"Wild" adaptation resonant and heartfelt

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
104 min., rated PG
Grade: A -

Quirky filmmaker Spike Jonze has filled out the pages and 339 words of Maurice Sendak's beloved 1963 picture book in Where the Wild Things Are, intimate, touching, and profound magic.

At the center is Max, played by 12-year-old newcomer Max Records, a lonely, misunderstood boy whose imagination runs wild and makes him run off one evening in his wolf costume without supper to a land where the untamed wild things are and he becomes their king.

The screenplay by Jonze and Dave Eggers has complex layers on childhood and loneliness, but not a lot happens in a narrative sense during the “wild things” scenes—a wild rumpus of squabbling, house-breaking, and tomfoolery mostly.

The film is more about its alternate mood of melancholy, sadness, and triumph, brought to life by its beautiful look and Carter Burwell's score, with upbeat, childlike indie songs by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O. Jonze maintains the make-believe spirit of Sendak's story and projects Max's imagination into a fantasy land that's playful, liberating, earthy, and mysterious.

Newcomer Max Records is terrific as Max; he's no unctuous child actor by any means. He not only gets the character business right but delivers his lines with joy, pain, and rage in the needed places. Catherine Keener as Max's working single mom has lovely moments at the film's start and end. From a wonderfully bold mix of live-action, animation, and puppetry, the “wild thing” creatures are made more lifelike. James Gandolfini is tender and vulnerable, providing the voice of Max's main thing, Carol, whose insecurities and temper mirror Max. Catherine O'Hara, Lauren Ambrose, and Forest Whitaker are also great, developing their respective Things' with distinct and lovable personalities.

Some dull patches in pacing and occasionally too-wild hand-held camera work make the result less than great, but Where the Wild Things Are should resonate with anyone who has an imagination, especially mature children and adults.

Fidgety kids might find it too downbeat and perhaps a bit slow, but they'll be missing out.