By Roger Moore
‘where the wild things are’
Sendak’s make-believe world creates a place for children to express and tame their own wildness.
The author of “Where the Wild Things Are” picked Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) to direct the long-planned film of the much-loved children’s book. But whatever Maurice Sendak thought the quixotic Jonze would bring to the movie — a penetrating understanding of the thin, allegorical picture book, perhaps — what Jonze delivers, with a script by Dave Eggers, is not a children’s movie at all. This dull, downbeat, yet faithful adaptation has become a “Sesame Street of the Spotless Mind.”
Max Records plays Max, a kid who should be beyond donning his old whiskered wolf suit and terrorizing his mom (Catherine Keener). In a wintry opening built around an ends-in-tears snowball fight with his sister’s teenage friends, Max comes off as an impulsive, hyper and self-centered brat. But he’s sensitive enough to escape to his plush-toy filled room, and to oblige with a fanciful tale when his hard-pressed single mom sighs, “I could use a story.”
But a tantrum in the middle of mom’s date (Mark Ruffalo, in a cameo) reveals Max for the Beastly Boy he is.
“FEED me, woman! Roaaar!”
He bolts from the house, and in his funny costume, stumbles across a sailboat that takes him far away, to the island “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Jonze creates a vivid organic trees-and-stones setting for this Island of Lost Muppets. They’re a sensitive tribe with bad tempers, fragile egos and easily hurt feelings. Max has only to exaggerate his status in the world, and his roar, to convince the plush beasts — voiced by James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano and Oscar winners Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper — that he’s their king. Since he promises to end loneliness and create warm, welcoming sleeping piles of wild things, they go along with him.
“Let the wild rumpus begin!”
The movie lets Max and the Wild Things allegorically work out worries about relationships, family and mortality. They also build this cool stick fort of Max’s design, but even it gets in the way of their togetherness. Jonze and Eggers fret so much over the group dynamic (Carol, the natural leader, can’t win over K.W., a cute beast with an aversion to selfish bullying) that they leave out the warmth, the magic of discovery and the whimsy.
No wonder Warners made them re-shoot this movie, which was supposed to come out in March 2008. Jonze plainly didn’t re-shoot enough. Only the romping, wistful childhood-remembered songs by Karen Orzolek (Karen O, lead singer of the rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs) come close to capturing the right tone.
As a children’s film, it’s a bore. And as a grand film enterprise, “Where the Wild Things Are” skirts the line between folly and fiasco. It’s far too striking and thoughtful to dismiss outright. But it is literal and dour enough to make you wonder just why this book has the reputation it does, and what on Earth the author was thinking in pitching it to Jonze. He got so lost in the things” that he’s left the “wild” and the fun out.