Tinkering with a sacred cultural totem can be riskier business than nuclear fission. Just ask Peter Sellars, the visionary stage director whose critically savaged recent Public Theater production of Othello — with its postracial casting, repurposed characters and a mumbling Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago — was considerably more compelling in theory than as a piece of stagecraft. Giving themselves no less formidable a challenge, director Spike Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers set out to make a feature-length film version of Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s nearly wordless 1963 children’s book about Max, a mischievous boy, sent to bed without his supper, whose id decamps for a mysterious island populated by the giant, mischief-making beasties of the title. Some revisionist criticism (like Bruce Handy’s recent New York Times essay) notwithstanding, Sendak’s book remains, to quote a sage colleague, “one of those perfect things” — a primal scream of sorts that, whether you fully appreciate it at 6 or not until 60, captures with lyrical precision the impotent rage of a willful child in the face of parental authority. So perfect, in fact, that the very idea of a Wild Things movie, which has been kicking around for more than a decade, seemed from the start folly.

As it happens, Jonze and Eggers have added a lot without betraying a thing. Like Jonze’s previous Adaptation and its freely associative relationship to Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, Where the Wild Things Are is another small miracle of literary adaptation, which aims to capture the spirit rather than the letter of its source material. The movie’s Max (12-year-old newcomer Max Records, who gives one of the most naturalistic child performances I’ve ever seen in a movie) is now a child of divorce, with a loving-but-harried single mom (Catherine Keener) and a teenage sister who’d rather hang out with her cool, older friends than pay attention to her dorky kid brother. Early in the film, those bigger kids leave Max winded and teary-eyed after pummeling him in a driveway snowball fight — a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day that only gets worse when Mom invites to dinner her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), the strange man glimpsed by Max from a cautious distance, an obvious intruder into his domain. Whatever is a boy to do under such circumstances but don his beloved wolf costume and throw the mother of all temper tantrums? “I didn’t set out to make a children’s movie. I set out to make a movie about childhood,” Jonze says in the Where the Wild Things Are press notes. What he’s ended up with strikes me as one of the most empathic and psychologically acute of all movies about childhood — a Wizard of Oz for the dysfunctional-family era.

Just as the characters of Jonze’s Being John Malkovich slipped inside the skin of the erudite character actor, Jonze and Eggers here climb into the head of a preteen boy at once frightened by the world around him and eager to master it. So Max’s solo boat ride to the isle of the wild things is markedly more perilous than Dorothy’s cyclone, the landscape he finds there more rugged than enchanted. This parallel world (the inspired work of production designer K.K. Barrett and cinematographer Lance Acord) has all the weight and textures of the real one, a reminder that so much of children’s make-believe begins with the transfiguration of ordinary objects — a cardboard box that becomes a fort, a tinfoil suit of armor. So too does Jonze, who rose to prominence as a director of skateboard videos and the co-creator of MTV’s Jackass, remember well the terror and euphoria of boyhood tests of physical mettle, making Where the Wild Things Are, among other things, a welcome salvo against the modern-day “helicopter” parents who prefer that their kids accrue cellulite in front of a TV rather than do anything by which “they might get hurt.” The “wild rumpus” Max initiates upon being crowned king of the wild things is, in Jonze’s version, a body-slamming smack down in which the creatures immolate their own nests (using their torsos as bulldozers), while a later dirt-clod battle (which recalls the epic sandlot war from Frank Borzage’s masterful 1934 No Greater Glory) leaves behind many bruised limbs and even more bruised egos — this time with Max himself doing much of the bruising.

The look of the wild things has been closely modeled on Sendak’s original illustrations, with high-tech CGI faces atop wonderfully low-fi fur and papier-mâché bodies. But in by far their most audacious (and potentially disastrous) stroke, Jonze and Eggers have given each of the creatures a name and a distinct personality — even put words in their mouths. The horned, horizontally striped beast featured prominently in the book has become Carol (voiced with disarming delicacy by James Gandolfini), a gentle giant at once Max’s disciple and alter ego. Straggly-haired KW (Lauren Ambrose), the object of Carol’s inarticulate affection, is, like Max’s sister, a moody adolescent who strays from the group to spend time with her new best friends. Chronically gloomy, griping Judith (Catherine O’Hara) accuses King Max of playing favorites, especially when the film arrives at that most dreaded of schoolyard rituals — picking teams for an athletic contest. So Max trades one dysfunctional family for another and, before long, finds himself in the position every child, particularly those of divorce, fears most: being the one responsible for holding the family together. For a while, Max placates everyone with the promise that his invisible “sadness shield” will guard them all from hurt feelings, but even it proves ill-equipped to stop the onward march of time that is turning the world of the wild things — and everything in it — to dust.

This may sound like heady stuff for kids, and it is, but no more so than what actually goes through kids’ heads as they feel their way through the world. “It’s hard being a family,” says KW late in the film — harder still being 9 or 10 and learning that parents are imperfect people, that friendships are fleeting, and that nothing lasts forever. Like Sendak before him, Jonze seizes upon that uncertain moment and transforms it into art.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE | Directed by SPIKE JONZE | Written by JONZE and DAVE EGGERS, based on the book by MAURICE SENDAK | Produced by TOM HANKS, GARY GOETZMAN, JOHN CARLS, SENDAK and VINCENT LANDAY | Warner Bros. | Citywide

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