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First Take: ‘Where the Wild Things Are’

It was a weekend of wild things, particularly of the lupine variety: unfit parents in Colorado cried wolf, SNL guest Shakira howled like a wolf, and a movie about a boy dressed as a wolf opened in theaters nationwide.Had it not been for that balloon rumpus, the latter would have easily been the most captivating spectacle.

I expected to be bored by Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Unless they were released during my own childhood, I don’t typically enjoy movies that are for or about children, and I completely slept on Maurice Sendak’s 1963 book (or, at least, have no recollection of reading it). So I wasn’t among the scores of people eagerly anticipating this release ever since Jonze began working on it an impressive six years ago. If anything, the hipster trifecta — director/co-writer Jonze, writer Dave Eggers, and soundtrack composer Karen O — seemed a tad smug, suggesting, as it did, that their involvement alone would secure the film’s popularity. (And when a New York boutique started selling $600 wolf suits for grown-ups, it nearly squashed all interest).

But while it isn’t as phenomenal as some diehard fans surely hoped, Where the Wild Things Are is, in my opinion, a pretty lovable movie. Jonze, still a boy at age 39, introduces his sensitive child king, Max, as if he were someone the director had known forever. One minute, the 9-year-old hero is crashing down the stairs like a sugar-smacked lunatic; the next he’s in tears over a destroyed snow fort. He’s lonely in the way children that age often are and we need only witness his unacknowledged entreaties to his big sister or his impish tugs at the toe of his mom’s nylons to sense it.

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It’s almost with reluctance that, when Max runs away from home twenty minutes in, we, too, have to leave behind Jonze’s hand-held verite and travel to a fantasy land of lumbering monsters because therein lies every potential for the film to go awry. Had Jonze opted for computer-animated creatures instead of using oversized puppets that move with the uncertain awkwardness of Snuffleupagus or had he and Eggers reinvented the Wild Things so that they were an innocent crew of subservient sidekicks, the result would have been tediously G-rated. As it is, they managed to create a believably sad — perhaps even dying — world that seems to only exist at dawn and dusk (a symbolism alluded to early on when Max is troubled to learn that the sun will one day expire).

As a manifestation of Max’s impulses and anxieties, the Wild Things are a confusing bunch. Since Sendak’s original text would fill all of about ten Tweets, it’s hard to say how accurate Jonze and Eggers’ elaboration is — but what difference does it make? In a documentary that aired last week, the children’s book author told Jonze that he would advise today’s children to “quit this life as soon as possible.” Things change.

Max forges an immediate connection with the aggressively petulant Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini); they bond when the boy offers to help Carol destroy his woodland house. Soon he meets the oft-overlooked Alexander (Paul Dano), the maternal KW (Lauren Ambrose), and other characters whose expectations he, as king, must manage. The rest of the film drags a bit as Max reenacts the events that led to his leaving home — the gallivanting and fort-building is fun, and the random decisions to sleep in piles and talk to owls are perfectly child-like in their imaginative absurdity, but there’s an aimlessness to the narrative similar to that of Eggers’ previous screenplay (last summer’s Away We Go).

In the end, though, it’s a worthwhile process. Eventually, Max recognizes Carol’s destructive impulses as his own and he rejects them. All along, we’ve been watching Max move from indignation to realization, from selfishness to understanding, from impulse to thought, without having to endure an improbably mature speech that makes the Precocious Child one of Hollywood’s least charming devices. The act of investigating one’s perspective and desires is, itself, mature. Max returns to a warm dinner and nothing has been entirely resolved, only considered, which is a lesson more adult than any other.