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Director Spike Jonze's last feature was "Adaptation," about a screenwriter driven to madness when he attempts to turn a book into a film. Now, Jonze has done an adaptation of his own, turning Maurice Sendak's wildly popular children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are," into a live action movie. So, how did he do? Our film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: What a task director Spike Jonze has set for himself, adapting Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are." Sendak's illustrated children's story is one of the few things I can confidently call perfect. It's the tale of a boy's tantrum and his fed-up mother's rejection of him — bed without supper. And it's the tale of the dream that transports him over the sea, in his wolf pajamas, to a land of monsters that crown him king and help him act out all his rowdy, infantile impulses, until the rage goes out of his system and he longs to return home.

Sendak's huge creatures are on the border between stuffed-animal cuddlesome and mythically grotesque, perfect mascots for Sendak, whose fantasies are always double-edged: They can liberate you or consume you. Jonze's film is a different animal than Sendak's. Its wild things are more domesticated, and its characters come with a backstory, to my mind, one that spells things out too much. Max is a lonely casualty of his parents' divorce, who freaks out when he sees his mom, played by Catherine Keener, getting frisky with a date.

One alteration by Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers is unpardonable. Max dashes out of the house instead of getting sent to bed without supper, so there are no bedroom walls melting away and forest rolling in — one of the book's most archetypal images. But once Max is in a boat being tossed on the waves, Jonze's vision begins to cast a spell all its own.

Max is played by a kid with the name Max Records, who has a mop of hair and a sweet face but is also petulant and edgy. It's an uningratiating performance that ends up totally winning. Jonze and Eggers most agreeable innovation is turning Sendak's rather anonymous beasts into complex and conflicted personalities. They sit around quarreling, smashing things, staring into space, and wishing for a leader. And then comes little Max, who says he's a king from a distant land to keep them from devouring him.

If you've seen the previews, you know the setting is real — the rocky coast of Australia, a burned forest, a desert — and the creatures, decidedly unreal. Giant puppets, furry or feathered, modeled on Sendak's drawings. Instead of being bombarded by computer illusions, we're allowed to suspend our disbelief and bring our own imaginations into play. For all the artfulness, the feel is rough-hewn. It's a fabulous treehouse of a movie.

There is some computer animation, but it's largely used for the creatures' expressions, and I've rarely seen facial movements so evocative. Jonze rehearsed the voice actors together, instead of taping them separately, as in most animated films. And they're like a crack repertory company. Chief among them is James Gandolfini, who has tender, plaintive cadences, all New Jersey-gangster expunged, as Carol the tempestuous lummox. Carol needs a king, a firm dad, to direct his wayward energies. When he and Max walk in the desert, they bond over childhood anxieties as few characters in movies.

(Soundbite of movie "Where the Wild Things Are")

Mr. JAMES GANDOLFINI(Actor): (As Carol) This part of the canyon is not so good.

Mr. MAX RECORDS (Actor): (As Max) Why?

Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Carol) Well look, this used to be all rock and now it's sand and then one day it's going to be dust. And then the whole island will be dust and then I don't even know what comes after dust.

Mr. RECORDS: (As Max) Carol?

Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Carol) Mm-hmm.

Mr. RECORDS: (As Max) Did you know the sun was going to die?

Mr. GANDOLFINI: (As Carol) What? I never heard that. Come on, that can't happen. You're the king and look at me, I'm big. How could guys like us worry about a tiny little thing like the sun?

EDELSTEIN: That gives you a sense of how soft the movie is, and I'm of two minds about that. But then again, this isn't Sendak's "Where the Wilds Things Are," and the creatures aren't just projections of Max's id. There's been a lot of talk about whether the film is too scary for little kids, to which Sendak crustily responded at a press conference: Let them wet their pants. I think the scary charge is nonsense, though. Kids like to be scared. And these wild things, in the end, are human, a family in all its imperfections, which is what this boy needs. Unlike the childish carnivores of Sendak's book, these movie beasts just wouldn't eat their own.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.

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