For many adults, the highest compliment you can pay a children's book is that it's "not really a children's book." A few obvious examples: Lewis Carroll's freaky "Alice" novels, Kenneth Grahame's enervated "The Wind in the Willows" and Maurice Sendak's short but intense "Where the Wild Things Are," now a live-action film directed by Spike Jonze, who co-wrote with novelist Dave Eggers.
Sendak's book deals directly with a difficult subject, the rage of children, and Jonze's film captures this beautifully during its opening scenes. Young Max (played by Max Records, of "The Brothers Bloom") is a lonely, imaginative boy whose single mother (Catherine Keener) has little time to spare. Negative attention being better than none, Max screams, fights and finally bites, then runs away from home.
What he finds is an island of enormous monsters (outfitted by Jim Henson's Creature Shop) who reflect aspects of Max himself: quiet Douglas (Chris Cooper), kindly Ira (Forest Whitaker), crabby Judith (an excellent Catherine O'Hara), overlooked Alexander (Paul Dano), a mother figure named KW (Lauren Ambrose) and hulking Carol (James Gandolfini), whose combination of anger and sensitivity strikes an obvious chord with Max.
Jonze and Eggers have a firm grasp on the way a child's joy can quickly turn to tears, but they squeeze hard and can't let go. The film is essentially a parade of negative emotions - sorrow, anger, jealousy, regret. And the choppy dialogue, at times so cryptic that it borders on Beckett, keeps the Wild Things from becoming full-fledged characters.
"Where the Wild Things Are" clearly wants to be a children's movie that isn't really a children's movie, and it succeeds. That's great news - if you're an adult.