As in Sendak's book, Max is a mischief-making kid prone to roaring at his mom (Catherine Keener), but Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers add more details to Max's life. Here, Max's dad (who we never meet) has been out of the picture for a while, and his mom struggles to balance her career and personal life with her family. Max is worried about his mom, about his sister and her new, strange friends, and about the sun, which - his science teacher recently informed him - will someday die out (the teacher is quite possibly the worst elementary school teacher ever). These opening scenes are brief but crucial; when Max acts out while mom is entertaining a date (Mark Ruffalo), Keener does an excellent job of showing her obvious love and concern for her son against her need to be a grown-up for even one night. The playful inventiveness Jonze demonstrated in his music video work had previously been balanced against the sardonic mind games of Charlie Kaufman's screenplays for the director's first two features, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Here, Jonze reveals surprising sensitivity and compassion for his young protagonist; it's clear now that the impish sense of humor found in everything from Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" video to the Jonze-produced Jackass stems from a filmmaker who hasn't forgotten what it was like to be a kid.
Running away from home, Max sails to a distant island populated by the titular beasts; led by the destructive Carol (James Gandolfini), the wild things embody feelings Max is unable to articulate. This could have been a painfully self-conscious device, but Jonze and Eggers smartly allow the characters to shift and blur roles - moody K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), with her strange new owl friends Bob and Terry, seems to stand in for Max's sister until she assumes a more maternal role. Gandolfini, in particular, is perfectly cast, his oddly cuddly voice giving way to Tony Soprano's petulant rage as Carol, initally Max's surrogate, turns on his new "king" for his inability to eradicate sadness from their kingdom. Jonze is smart not to make said kingdom a CGI-fest - filmed in Australia, the movie places its Henson studios-created (and digitally tweaked) wild things in a world that feels wholly created out of Max's imagination as he hides in the woods (hence the visits from a dog and a raccoon). K.K. Barrett's production design and cinematographer Lance Acord's brilliant use of available light make us believe in an imagined world, once majestic but now slowly falling apart. Carol's anxiety over the island's desert and things that turn to dust is mirrored in the deterioration of his and K.W.'s friendship - a scene where K.W. lies on the ground, waiting for Carol to step on her face, is a brutal representation of how a child might perceive the breakdown of his parents' marriage. Some reviews complained that not much happens in the film, but as it's the story of a boy realizing that, even in his fantasies, he cannot make everything better, I'd say that a great deal happens.
It's true that this is strong stuff, and Where the Wild Things Are never shies away from its darker implications, from Carol's brutal assault of his rational friend Douglas (Chris Cooper) to the realization that Max has been preceded by many "kings" who were summarily eaten, to the subtle suggestion that Max has experienced serious abuse. There is also the movie's coda, which show in a few wordless images how nothing between a parent and child ever changes, and how this is both a good and sad thing. But the beauty of the film lies in the way that it doesn't pander to kids, expressing serious themes in a direct, perceptible way that honors its young audiences' capacity for introspection and creativity. There were multiple complaints when the film was released that it was dark and weird and boring, and even some of the positive reviews noted that it's not "for everyone." I agree - Where the Wild Things Are is the perfect movie for kids sensitive enough to need it and cool enough to get it.