Written in 1963 and beloved by generations of unruly preschoolers ever since, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are almost transcends the notion of “classic”—if there’s a Mona Lisa of children’s books, here it is. Adapting this slim volume for the movies, however, represents an undertaking every bit as daunting and curious as Mona Lisa: The Motion Picture. Okay, so there’s this chick with an enigmatic smile: Now what? Sendak’s primal-scream narrative unfolds in just 30 illustrations, with accompanying text that runs half the length of this review; for director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and screenwriter Dave Eggers (Away We Go), the challenge was working out how to expand that sublimely simple vision to feature length without diluting its power. Their solution? Emo it up. Alas, injecting semi-complicated, quasi-adult feelings into the material, while admirable in theory, only renders it totally incoherent.
Needless to say, the basic thrust of Sendak’s story remains intact—though our young hero, Max, now looks to be about 10 years old rather than five. (Ironically, the film was mired in post-production for so long that the kid actor, Max Records, has already appeared in another movie, The Brothers Bloom, looking a good two years older than he does here.) Incorrigible to the point where he actually bites his mother (Catherine Keener), Max escapes via boat to a mysterious land inhabited by a variety of grotesque monsters, who first threaten to devour him but quickly adopt him as their self-proclaimed king. A wild rumpus ensues, of course—as interpreted by Jonze and Eggers, this involves lots of WWE-style body slams—but feelings get hurt along the way, and King Max finds it more difficult than expected to fulfill his big campaign promise, which was to banish loneliness via the deployment of a magical “sadness shield.”
- Where the Wild Things Are
- Max Records, Catherine Keener, voices of James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara.
- Directed by Spike Jonze.
- Rated PG. Opens Friday.
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If that last bit sounds uncomfortably like a twee indie-rock lyric to you, prepare to do some wincing. Eggers built his reputation as a novelist/memoirist on naked emotional honesty, and he’s chosen to give the film’s Wild Things—voiced by the likes of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara and Paul Dano—a panoply of wounded personalities that make them seem less monstrous than terminally moody. Which is an interesting idea, except that nobody quite figured out whether their neuroses are supposed to reflect or challenge Max’s sense of abandonment. Half the time, these creatures behave exactly like overgrown children, forcing Max into the eye-opening role of surrogate parent; the other half, they seem to embody the mystery of adulthood, alluding to complex interpersonal relationships in a way that sounds like Mom and Dad’s halting attempts to explain an impending divorce. The result isn’t multifaceted, just muddled.
That’s not to say that Where the Wild Things Are is never affecting, mind you. The real-world prologue, in which friends of Max’s older sister accidentally destroy his “igloo” during a snowball fight, captures with a heartbreaking directness the feeling of helpless impotence that can suddenly overwhelm little kids. And the Wild Things—giant puppets augmented with CGI faces—can be remarkably expressive when they aren’t simply pouting. But the movie never really seems to understand the enduring appeal of Sendak’s marvelous drawings—his fabulously discomfiting evocation of a mundane existence abruptly engulfed by tendrils and overrun by beasts. (Rather than show Max’s bedroom transformed into a jungle—the key image most of us remember from the book—the film simply has him run off down the street.) It’s too earnest to get within shouting distance of anything truly wild.