Max is a feisty little kid. First he gets upset because his older sister doesn’t want to play with him. Then he gets upset when her friends play too rough (i.e. caving in his snow fortress). His mom (Catherine Keener), though caring, has her own stuff going on (work, boyfriend) and she can’t be there every single time he builds a fort that’s really a rocket ship that will take them to the moon. As a kid, I remember being frustrated when I wanted to show my mom something, and she, busy working or conversing with another adult, would only walk very slowly towards the excitement I had waiting just around the corner, while I tugged mercilessly on her arm, trying to get her to break into a run. This is normal kid stuff, and I’m not sure its enough to summon the kind of tantrum Max throws, one severe enough to take him to a far away island inhabited only by big, scary monsters. It makes Max come off more like a spoiled brat than the hero-figure created by Maurice Sendak.

However, once Spike Jonze and his industrious crew of set decorators and designers takes you to that island, you’re more than willing to buy into the fantasy; It’s just that incredible. Incredible looking, that is, because no matter how decadent the visuals get, you, the viewer, are the one left to reckon with the what and why of everything that happens. Here’s the gist of it: The monsters are unhappy so they make Max their king. Max tries to make everything better, but he’s a little kid and doesn’t know how. It’s sort of sad that even in his fantasy world things are far from perfect for him. He finds himself in the same position as his mother, struggling to make everyone get along. When he realizes how hard it is, he decides to go home, and when he sees his mother again there seems to be a kind of new, unspoken understanding between the two.

When you break it down like this, there does seem to be a plot, but when you’re in the middle of watching the film you feel just as lost as all of the characters. There’s a lot of running, jumping and throwing and general fun, but most of the time Max is in way over his head, and he knows it. There’s an air of confusion and fear that deflates even the most buoyant monster rumpus. In terms of tonality, it’s very complex, but tone alone does not a movie make. When it was over I felt as lost and confused as the monsters did before and after Max’s arrival, and maybe that’s the problem. This is supposed to be a story about an adventure that changes a boy. Certainly there’s adventure, but who knows what anyone got out of it. That said, there is an awful lot to love about WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, and I hope you still go see it.