Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen) is one of the heroes of my childhood.  Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) is one of the heroes of my adulthood.

So I eagerly—if somewhat apprehensively—awaited the arrival of Jonze's new adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are.  I wasn't disappointed. Jonze extracts the best from Sendak's book and expounds on it to make a rare and delicate creature:  A successful children's movie.

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The story is simple:  After a fight with his mother, little Max enters a fantasy world in which he becomes a king of monsters.  Wild adventures ensue, but ultimately things get a little too real for Max, and he decides to go back home.

What makes Sendak a treasure—and what Jonze clearly understands—is that he takes children and their fantasy worlds seriously.  Kids' imaginations are sometimes dark places. What starts out as fun can quickly become terrifying.  Where The Wild Things Are inhabits that border zone between dream and nightmare in which every child has spent at least one memorable night.

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Jonze deftly captures Sendak's tone, populating his fantastic island with a group of droopy, dysfunctional monsters who really just want to be loved. Played by newcomer Max Records, Max is a slightly wan, melancholy little boy who has found the perfect playmates in these saddest monsters in the world, for whom tears are a quick step away from gnashing teeth.

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Visually,  Sendak's gorgeous illustrations, which are so rich they seem to be woven into the page instead of drawn, set a high bar. Jonze rises to the challenge, creating landscapes simultaneously beautiful and threatening, all rolling sand dunes, towering trees, and endless ocean.  All the strange whimsy of Sendak's original springs to life on the screen.

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There are several added bonuses in Where the Wild Things Are: Catherine Keener in a small but memorable role, a stunning soundtrack, and a few good laugh lines. But what makes the thing sail is the successful translation of Sendak's one-of-a-kind atmosphere to the celluloid strip.  It was a tricky job, and I'm glad it was Spike Jonze who did it.

One caveat:  unlike Sendak's book, Where The Wild Things Are may not be appropriate for children of all ages.  I know it would have scared the hell out of five year-old me.

Plays, among many others, at Landmark Metro at 1:45, 4:40, 7:00, 9:20pm.  More showtimes here.
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