The film begins with Max, a lonely nine-year-old boy with an active imagination whose parents are divorced, wearing a wolf costume and chasing his dog. His older sister, Claire, does nothing when her friends crush Max's snow fort (with him inside) during a snowball fight. Out of frustration, Max messes up her bedroom and destroys a frame that he had made for her. At school, Max's teacher teaches him and his classmates about the eventual death of the sun. Later on, his mother, Connie, invites her boyfriend Adrian to dinner. Max becomes upset with his mother for not coming to the fort he made in his room. He wears his wolf costume, acts like an animal, and demands to be fed. When his mother gets upset, he throws a tantrum and bites her on the shoulder. She yells at him and he runs away, scared by what has transpired. At the edge of a pond Max finds a small boat that he boards.
The pond soon becomes an ocean. Max, still in his wolf suit, eventually reaches an island. There, he stumbles upon a group of seven large, monstrous creatures. One of them, Carol, is in the middle of a destructive tantrum (caused by the departure of a female Wild Thing named K.W.) while the others attempt to stop him. As Carol wreaks havoc Max tries to join in on the mayhem, but soon finds himself facing the suspicious anger of the Wild Things. When they contemplate eating him, Max convinces them that he is a king with magical powers capable of bringing harmony to the group. They crown him as their new king. Shortly after, K.W. returns and Max declares a wild rumpus, in which the Wild Things smash trees and tackle each other.
The Wild Things introduce themselves as Carol, Ira, Judith, Alexander, Douglas, the Bull, and K.W. Soon, they all end up piling on one another before going to sleep, with Max at the center. Carol takes Max on a tour of the island, showing him a model he built depicting what he wishes the island looked like. Inspired by this, Max orders the construction of an enormous fort, with Carol in charge of construction. When K.W. brings her two owl friends Bob and Terry to the fort, a disagreement ensues, as Carol feels they are outsiders (Max had said earlier that if any outsiders entered the fort, they would “have their brains automatically cut out”). To release their frustrations, Max divides the tribe into “good guys” and “bad guys” for a dirt clod fight, but Alexander is hurt during the game. After an argument between K.W. and Carol, K.W. leaves once again.
Max finds Alexander alone in the fort and has a conversation with him. Alexander reveals that he always suspected that Max is not a king with magical powers, but warns him to never let Carol know. Soon enough, at pre-dawn, Carol throws another tantrum — this time, about the fort, K.W.'s absence, and the eventual death of the sun (which Max had talked to Carol about earlier in the film). When Carol gets angry with Max for not doing a good job as a king, Douglas tries to explain to him that he's “just a boy, pretending to be a wolf, pretending to be a king”, thus exposing the truth to the rest of the Wild Things. Carol becomes enraged and ends up ripping off Douglas' right arm (though only sand pours out of the wound). Then he chases Max into the forest and threatens to eat him. Max is saved by K.W., who hides him in her stomach. Max listens as Carol and K.W. have an argument over Carol's misbehavior. After Carol leaves, K.W. explains that their lives are difficult, with Carol's tantrums only making it worse. Max realizes what his mother is going through, and decides to leave the island and head home.
Max finds the crushed remains of Carol's model island (presumably destroyed by Carol himself in a rage) and leaves a token of affection for him to find (a letter C inside a love-heart made of twigs). He finds Carol and tells him he is going home because he is not a king. The other Wild Things escort Max to his boat. Carol runs to join them after finding Max's token and arrives in time to see him off. He starts to howl and Max howls back, then all the other Wild Things join in. Carol looks at K.W. and she smiles kindly at him. Returning home, Max is embraced by his distraught mother, who gives him a bowl of hot soup, a piece of cake and a glass of milk and sits with him as he eats. He watches as she falls asleep.
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