These early scenes capture with painful immediacy the anarchic emotional energy of childhood, the way exuberant joy can turn, in an instant, into fury or despair before burning itself out. Jonze conveys, too, the related mix of reverence and possessiveness, of I'll-do-anything-for-you and Do-this-for-me-now, that a child fixates on a parent. The former is presented in a simple yet immensely evocative Max's-eye-view scene in which his mother tries to work as he watches from the floor beneath her desk; the latter, in the tantrum Max throws after he spies Mom kissing a date on the sofa, an outburst that concludes, not with an idle threat to eat her up, but with an actual, out-of-control bite.
Clad in his wolf-suit pajamas--possibly the most famous nightwear in literary history--Max flees the house and heads into the woods where, as his furies subside, he discovers a beckoning ocean and a trim, little boat patiently awaiting. After a tempestuous voyage, he reaches a rocky shore and soon encounters the giant, animal-headed Wild Things, who at the outset are carnivorously nonplussed about his arrival. But he impresses them in due course (though, in contrast to the original, this requires a bit more than "staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once"), and they declare him their king.
In Sendak's book, the Wild Things were a nameless, undifferentiated crew, broad expressions of the fractious, uncontainable passions of childhood. Extending the conceit, Jonze and Eggers give each one a name and, more important, a role to play in a vast, amplified allegory of Max's home life: Carol (James Gandolfini) is Max's id writ (very) large--generous and eager to belong, but easily wounded and prone to destructive fits of rage; Alexander (Paul Dano) is the lonely boy, eager for attention; KW (Lauren Ambrose) is the absent sister, more focused on distant friends than her family; Judith (Catherine O'Hara) is the nagging voice of pessimism and doubt.
Max's life with the Wild Things bears a more than passing resemblance to his former one: building forts (though on a considerably grander scale), exchanging tokens of affection, conducting dirt-clod fights, and generally trying to construct a zone where, in Carol's words, "only the things you want to happen would happen." But this wild rumpus, like any, can't go on forever and, as it descends into bickering and hurt feelings, Max discovers that "king" is merely "parent" by another name.
It would be difficult to overstate the fierce originality of Jonze's vision. The Wild Things themselves--which the director insisted rely on costumes and puppetry, with CGI utilized only for facial detail--are a marvel: shaggy titans with easily bruised hearts. And while the latter parts of the film, in which these melancholy monsters serve as a vehicle for Max to work through his boyish angst, won't be to all tastes--these scenes are self-indulgent in exactly the manner of childhood--there is an unmistakable tenderness to nearly every frame.