Anyone wanting to turn Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” into a movie must face a steep challenge. The 1963 book — esteemed as a classic for … I guess “kids of all ages” would be the term — is only 48 pages long, and consists largely of Sendak’s cozy-strange illustrations; there’s very little text. So to assist in plumping up this story for a 90-minute film, director Spike Jonze brought in writer Dave Eggers, who last lent his alt-lit touch to the languid “Away We Go.” The result is a picture whose pleasures are almost entirely visual. The dialogue gets some energetic spin from the actors involved, but — no surprise — there’s too much of it, and it wears you down.
The story, for those who may have forgotten, or never known, concerns a little boy named Max. In the movie as in the book, Max (played wonderfully well by newcomer Max Records) is a handful. He’s raucous and needy in the usual little-boy manner, and is constantly being fobbed off to go play alone by his single mom (Catherine Keener), who’s preoccupied with her job, and by his older sister (Pepita Emerichs), who’s preoccupied with being a teenager. After pitching a fit in the kitchen one night, Max runs off into the nearby woods, where he wanders for a while before coming upon a small boat pulled up on a beach. Climbing aboard, he sails away in search of a more agreeable life.
This seaborne sequence — with Max gliding along through sun and rain and calm starry nights before arriving at a mysterious island where huge waves crash and roar among the rocks — has a natural enchantment of which the movie could have used a bit more.
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On the island, Max discovers a group of outsized creatures — some bearish, some goat-like, but mostly very big — who are quite raucous and needy themselves. One of them is even pitching a fit when Max comes upon them. Their group dynamic is clearly that of a family — something Max has longed for — and after impressing them with a claim to have “ancient powers,” the young interloper is adopted as their king. With certain preconditions. “Will you keep out the sadness?” one asks. “What about loneliness?” another enquires. Max assures them he’ll make everything just right in their world, then cries out with kiddy abandon, “Let the rumpus begin!”
Jonze was right to forego soundstage flora in favor of natural exteriors (the movie was shot amid the coastal bluffs and inland dunes of southern Australia), and right again to go with performers in furry creature suits rather than CGI concoctions (although the creatures’ faces have been digitally animated, with great skill). And by wading into the action — dirt-clod fights and galumphing creature-romps — with hand-held cameras, he manages to lend these fantastical characters a real-world credibility. The fine voice actors — James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker among them — provide a bustling verbal interaction that’s equally believable.
Unfortunately, the creatures themselves are a glum bunch, wracked by insecurities and whiny paranoia. Their purpose is clearly to provide little life lessons for Max, and to echo his own socialization problems back home. Very soon we get it, we get it.
The movie was a troubled production, shot three years ago then flagged by Warner Bros., which ordered substantial re-shooting. The result is a picture of considerable vision (this is a Spike Jonze film), but one that feels still-born. It traipses from one set-piece incident to the next without gathering much imaginative power, and it’s low on thrills. By the time Max decides to return to the real world, we’re much relieved to be sailing back with him.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Where the Wild Things Are.”
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