I know how ridiculous it is to say something like, "Where the Wild Things Are is one of the best kids' movies in the 70 years since The Wizard of Oz." So I won't. But I'm thinking it. And limiting the scope and comparing the film's worth to others from this year seems insufficient, because Where the Wild Things Are is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking.
Wild Things is, of course, based on Maurice Sendak's great 1964 children's book, notable as a vehicle for film adaptation because of its sparse verbiage — only 10 sentences long — ample imagery, and lots of blanks to fill in between pages. The film is widely divergent from the story without seeming to contradict anything — in effect, quite unfaithful to the word while magnifying the intent.
Max (Max Records) is a boy of boundless energy, imagination, and emotion who runs afoul of his mother (Catherine Keener) while she has her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) over. Max runs away, hides out, discovers a boat, sails across the ocean to an island, and discovers the wild things. Max tames the giant beasts with his bravery and claims that he's a king. They submit to his rule when he convinces them he's conquered beings bigger than them and promises to shield them from sadness.
The wild things are fully realized things of beauty — costumes created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, filled out by "suit performers," with CGI-enhanced faces. They're voiced by James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, and Michael Berry Jr., and they're given complex identities by the script from Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers.
Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) directs, and this is his most mature work yet. Known for showy, inventive visuals, Jonze shoots Wild Things in a relatively restrained manner, with handheld cameras communicating the energy of the action but without affectations getting in the way. (The joyous score from Karen O. and Carter Burwell amps up the oomph even further.)
Wild Things is profoundly emotional. In connecting the imaginary story with Max's real world, it's also, perhaps radically, Freudian. Max is full of anger, loneliness, and fear. He's scared of the adult world just beyond his comprehension. He's terrified of the impermanency of the cosmos. He feels exiled in his own family. He longs to be bigger and more powerful. And he's jealous of those who have control over their world, though he's starting to suspect his mom isn't infallible. Max Records convinces, and he carries the film as a straight man much like Judy Garland did in Oz.
I suspect kids will identify with what Max is going through, and the extent to which that's true will determine if Wild Things is a masterpiece of children's cinema or just a masterwork about being a kid. It's certainly jaw-droppingly ambitious, often brilliant, and unceasingly effective.