"It's individual moments and scenes that make it worth seeing."
First of all, Where the Wild Things Are is not a kids movie. Its content is not inappropriate -- no more so than plenty of animated films -- but its style, tone, and structure would bewilder young children, if not bore them outright. It's a movie about childhood, for adults.
With its screenplay by literary hipster hero Dave Eggers and soundtrack by the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, plus Spike Jonze's playful but melancholic directorial style, the film seems aimed at a particular type of adult, too: the type who knows who Dave Eggers, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Spike Jonze are.
This isn't a failing, mind you -- it just reduces the film's pool of potential admirers. I find myself in the shallow end of that pool. I like many things about the movie and admire it as an exercise in re-creating the logic of childhood imagination. Parts of it are truly beautiful. But as a whole, it just didn't connect with me. I kept wanting to like it more than I was liking it, and enjoying a film shouldn't require that kind of effort.
It's based on Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, of course, and I believe all nine sentences of it are represented in Eggers' screenplay (which by necessity introduces far more plot elements than the original contained). Max (Max Records), an energetic and mischievous boy of about 10, spends most of his time at play -- with his teenage sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and his mom (Catherine Keener) when he can get their attention; by himself the rest of the time. Like most little boys, he can turn the couch cushions into a fort and the carpet into molten lava anytime he pleases, and his imagination keeps him company. Still, you can see his face light up when he manages to engage his sister and her friends in a snowball fight.
Max's life is ordinary. His mother, who is single, adores him, but she's busy. His sister is a typical teenager. What Eggers and Jonze capture perfectly, though, is the fact that to a little kid, nothing is ordinary. Everything matters a lot, even if it's the same thing happening to all the other kids. Children feel complicated emotions just like the rest of us; they often just lack the means to express or understand them. That's where imagination comes in.
After Max's surplus of enthusiasm and playfulness leads him to misbehave when mom's boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) is visiting one evening, he dashes out of the house and into his own land of make-believe. He sails to an island inhabited by large, toothsome monsters, whose de facto leader, Carol (voice of James Gandolfini), sees in Max a kindred spirit. "I like the way you destroy stuff!" he tells Max admiringly.
The other creatures -- some of which vaguely resemble specific animals, some of which are pure fancy -- are curious about Max. There is talk of perhaps eating him. But Max tells them he was a king where he came from, and so the monsters are glad to have him as their king, too.
Max's sojourn among the wild things doesn't have a regular "plot," and the events unfold at a very leisurely pace. This is intentional: It's the way a little boy making up a story would conceive it. The monsters' personalities aren't very well defined, and sometimes they say things that don't make a lot of sense, dialogue-wise. Max gets the wild things excited about building a fort with "a swimming pool, with a bottom that's a trampoline!" You can picture a kid coming up with all of this off the top of his head.
Yet hidden within this simple scenario is a running theme that, like many children's stories, owes something to The Wizard of Oz. The monsters' interactions with each other and with Max reflect Max's own real-world fears and anxieties. Carol feels bad about losing his temper sometimes, just as Max does. He's at odds with KW (Lauren Ambrose), a female monster who used to be his friend but lately doesn't have time for him. One creature, Judith (Catherine O'Hara), is frequently suspicious of Max, doubting his motives and abilities. I wouldn't go so far as to say that each wild thing represents a particular facet of Max's psyche, but that's what they add up to. Max's time with them is like a therapy session that helps him work out his problems back home.
All of this is interesting to contemplate afterward, but while it's happening it's only fitfully entertaining. The film is lacking as a whole -- it's individual moments and scenes that make it worth seeing: Max's strangely moving relationship with Carol; odd details like the monster Ira (Forest Whitaker) putting holes in all the tree trunks; the practical, un-computerized design of the creatures, made by Jim Henson's company; and the realistic look of the scenery and set design. For an imaginary world, it's pretty down-to-earth.
And Max Records, now 12 years old, didn't get the part just because he shares the character's name. His performance is pure delight, easily the single best thing about the film. It might not sound like much for a kid to play a part where he has to act like a kid, but consider how few children in movies seem like real kids. Records does it, giving the fictional Max a lovable exuberance and sweetness that instantly endears him to the viewer. Where the Wild Things Are is an auspicious beginning for him, but I suspect even better films are in his future.
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Eric D. Snider (website) knows where the mild things are.