From the first scenes of protagonist Max starting a snowball fight, Spike Jonze's spotty but exciting Where the Wild Things Are spends a lot of time crashing and bashing, and that's when it is marvelous. Tellingly, the best scenes are mostly dialogue-free. But the script gets in the way much too often, throwing off what is exciting and engrossing about the film.
Based on the classic children's book by Maurice Sendak, the opening of the film spends just enough time in the real world to show that Max comes from a single-parent home with minimal dysfunction. After a fight with his mother (Catherine Keener, always welcome), Max runs down his block, then sails—in a startling and beautifully inky sequence—to an island of giant monsters who pronounce him king.
Jonze has a rare gift as a filmmaker: He can champion chaos within the frame while operating with economy and clarity in how he shoots and blocks his scenes. Jonze romanticizes chaos by distilling it, emphasizing what is invigorating about anarchy, creating a rousing onscreen storm of action and emotion that swells with its own energy but is always neatly contained by filmmaking technique. Jonze's vision is an ideal one for what Max and children like him desire most, as he lets Max wrestle, run, build up and burn down without consequences. Jonze gives Max the structure and comfort of family with none of the authority or confinement.
In this way, Jonze—or the film itself—is Max's mother, which makes all the talk about family and security that the movie contains superfluous. The Wild Things script is bogged down with co-writer Dave Eggers' obsession with the make-up, troubles and joys of the family unit, and these hangups weigh Wild Things down. The personalities of the beasts awkwardly emerge as extensions of Max's preadolescent needs for a protective big sister, an energetic best friend and a handful of other ready-made family member types. The scenes that delineate this idea are often shot against the backdrop of eerie, majestic landscapes, which creates an unflattering tension between the assured, enticing and complex visual components of the film (shot by Lance Acord) and its ho-hum attempts at story and theme.
Still, every frame of Wild Things is dynamically composed, and no stretch of boring exposition is long enough to get truly frustrating. In a way, the problems of the film make its numerous qualities so vivid by contrast that it's worth accepting them in order to have a deeper appreciation of the more lively parts, which is where Wild Things really finds its heart and lives up to its name.