The question now is whether Jonze made it too dangerous.
The film arrives in theaters Friday, a year later than originally planned by distributor Warner Bros. The studio was queasy over the dark, menacing tinges Jonze brought to the story about a boy who sails off to an island where resident monsters proclaim him their king.
"It wasn't what they were expecting," Jonze said in an interview. "We just ran into the sort of quagmire of like, `That's not what we thought it was going to be.'"
Instead of a cozy children's movie, Jonze crafted a tale about childhood, with a lot of the messy issues adults pay a fortune to exorcise through psychoanalysis. It touches on divorce and feelings of abandonment. It presents a child acting out in ugly, even violent ways, engaging in a shrill shouting match with his mother and running away from home in a red rage. Its monsters resemble the beloved images of Sendak's picture book, but their moodiness and occasional ferocity may prove more unsettling than endearing to viewers.
At a test screening of an early cut, some children found the wild things creepy and scary.
Rather than snatching the $80 million project away from Jonze, Warner decided to give him more time. Jonze reshot some scenes, and he spent the past year applying computer animation to create the facial expressions on his wild things, which were shot live on set using actors inside giant monster suits.
The result certainly is more challenging, and potentially more rewarding, than many family films.
In keeping with the sparse few hundred words of Sendak's text, the story is slim, Jonze providing a snapshot of a broken family before sending his young protagonist, Max, to the realm of the wild things.
The film plays out in an impressionistic manner akin to Sendak's book, Max having some wild rumpus adventures among his new friends, whose erratic behavior veers from loving to threatening.
When first published, the book found some harsh critics who thought its images were too frightening for children and that Max's disobedience set a bad example.
Sendak, who told Jonze at the start to make the story his own, said he was pleased with the results and that he and the filmmaker have become close friends.
"As you do these things, you relive them _ and that's not always a pleasant experience," Sendak said. "Spike was reliving his business and giving Max his Spikean drama, which is what it was all supposed to be. I was not supposed to sit there and tell them, `Make it this way, make it that way.' If anybody had done that to me while I was making the book, I would have had a fit."
Sendak and Jonze had talked for years about adapting the book to film. Jonze had been reticent, uncertain what he could bring to the story and not wanting to fabricate some contrived plot line to expand it to movie length.
He finally found his way into the story as he mused about not where the wild things are, but who they are.
"The idea that I came up with is if the wild things are wild emotions. As a kid, one of the things that can feel scary or out of control is wild emotions, out-of-control emotions, either in yourself or the people around you," Jonze said. "Having a tantrum, that's scary as a kid, because you just see red. ... Trying to make a movie that feels like what it feels to be 9 years old at times, that was the idea."
With a screenplay co-written by Jonze and author Dave Eggers, the movie is a visual marvel, no surprise from the director who turned identity and perception on its head with his first two films, "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation."
And voiced by James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Catherine O'Hara and Paul Dano, Jonze' monsters have true soul, their dialogue punctuated with whoops of joy or authentically weary sighs that make their emotional swings feel very human.
Cast members said the story offers valuable lessons in human behavior for young audiences.
"This is a fantasy environment for kids to be able to address their own fears so they can try to figure out what's going on inside of them, and see an example of themselves," Whitaker said. "You start to understand why he's throwing these tantrums, but then you start to see that maybe those tantrums aren't so healthy, aren't so cool."
Even if the film enlightens, though, it still might intimidate some.
Max Records _ the 12-year-old actor who stars as Sendak's Max _ said reaction was mixed among students at his school in Portland, Ore., where the film was screened recently.
"There were some kids who absolutely loved it and just thought it was really amazing," Records said. But at certain moments, some younger children "were just like, `I don't want to listen to this.' They just like, covered their ears or their eyes."
Any kid fears about the movie being too intense actually could be parents' fears, said "Being John Malkovich" co-star Catherine Keener, who plays Max's mother.
"I totally think the parents are more afraid. They're projecting a lot of stuff," Keener said. "I really hope that parents can just roll with this."
Warner Bros. certainly is rolling with it, debuting "Where the Wild Things Are" in 3,500 theaters with a big marketing blitz, hoping to score a commercial success before the barrage of holiday-season films begin to arrive in early November.
However audiences respond, Jonze is glad he got to adapt the story his way _ and that Sendak approves.
"I knew we'd always make our movie, ultimately. I was never going to compromise. To care about something, to work on something this long, I was never going to let it become something it shouldn't," Jonze said.
"I was worried that when it came down to them marketing it, that they would try and sell it as something it wasn't. Try and sell it as this safe children's movie. But I think they've done a good job at being honest about it. ... They've not only accepted the movie, but they've embraced it in the marketing of it."
AP Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle contributed to this story.