You could certainly be forgiven for assuming that director Spike Jonze's new film, Where the Wild Things Are (rated PG for action and mild language), is an adventure movie intended to capture the hearts of kids. After all, the film is based on Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, and the exhilarating trailer, with its brilliantly rendered Henson-worthy creatures, flashes of forest romps and desert treks, and taglines like "Inside each of us is . . . fear" and "Inside each of us is . . . hope" advertises nothing if not a roaring adventure film. But this subtle, emotional allegory is a long way from a children's movie, and it's likely the 10 and under set won't understand much of what happens on screen despite those lovable looking monsters.
What does happen is quite original, even for a director who has given audiences such innovative films as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Through the intellect and awareness of adult eyes, Jonze looks back on the confusing emotions-the inexpressible pain, the wild joy, the uncontainable fury-of childhood. Max is a child lashing out for a variety of reasons he doesn't fully comprehend. His sister, once a constant playmate, is outgrowing him, leaving him behind for a pair skinny, scraggle-haired teenage boys. His mother, though loving, doesn't always see him as she attempts to forge a new life and new love for herself after divorce. Max can't name or contain his hurt, so it explodes out of him with a violent fit and the line made famous in the book, "I'll eat you up!"
With dark humor and some phenomenal performances (though 12-year-old actor Max Records seems a bit long in the tooth to play tantrum-throwing Max), Jonze takes the bare bones of Sendak's story and fills in the empty space with shadows of melancholy. The monsters in the world Max escapes to not only mirror his own sense of betrayal but also the betrayal his parents apparently felt during their split. Just beginning to be broken by the disappointments of the world, Max no longer has the very young child's ability to create a fantasy devoid of sadness. It creeps into his imaginative hideout, and with every passing second becomes more like the mundane sadness of the real world. In the end, his mythical beasts are compelled to acknowledge, as Max does, that "It's hard to be a family."
If the film fails, it is in its brilliant marketing campaign. What Jonze has created is a quiet but strangely moving film that viewers will ponder for hours and perhaps days after. Still, I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed that I did not get the innocent adventure-the wild rumpus, if you will-promised in that spectacular trailer.