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Child's Play: The Where the Wild Things Are Movie

The Stop Smiling Review

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze
(Warner Bros.)


Reviewed by Sarah Silver

Unnecessarily gloomy and emotionally convoluted, Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers’ script for Where the Wild Things Are is a melancholy adaptation of the one-two punch that is the heavily illustrated, scantly written book by Maurice Sendak. The tale of a dejected youth in a wolf suit sailing off to an isle of round-headed, snaggle-toothed beasts has inspired innumerable adaptations (talk about a fruitful YouTube search!), most of them under seven minutes long. Those that are longer, including an opera and a ballet, naturally allow space for magic to occur — the book’s six pages of wordless, illustrated rumpus can translate into the fierce, disjointed harmonies or frenetic choreography inherent to those respective art forms.

Jonze opts for a naturalistic approach rather than an overtly fantastical one, as immediately indicated via the film’s breathless opening, which follows a rough-and-tumble Max (Max Records, guaranteed to front an indie rock band by age 14), down a staircase and into a scuffle with his dog. We meet Max’s sister, who is at that awkward Beezus Quimby age, and who, after a conflict in an igloo, sides with her bullying skate-punk friends over her crying little brother. Max takes revenge on his sister’s room, as Karen O’s forgettable score pipes in, heavy on the “tribal” ululations. So far, dialogue has been elegantly sparse, but on-the-nose conversation soon intrudes. There is a diatribe in Eggers’s cloying Away We Go script about the impending end of the world (“There’s soon to be no more water”), echoed here in Max’s science teacher’s speech about the sun slowly dying (“But I’m sure by that time the human race will have fallen to any number of calamities”), and both feel disingenuous, like the words of a self-loathing Cassandra who champions Pollyannaism merely to cheer herself.

The film continues taking itself too seriously as Max arrives, now donning a hipster’s take on the wolf suit (tatty, with fingerless gloves for hands and Chuck Taylors poking through the feet), at the famous isle of the titular Things. Max pads his résumé with previous experience as Ruler of a Kingdom so that the monsters won’t eat him up, and, once he is crowned King by head honcho Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), a vaguely Lord of the Flies political scenario starts to brew. The puppets (created by the Henson Creature Shop) are carefully crafted, and their design very much invokes Sendak’s beloved illustrations. Perhaps it is due, then, to their movements (they lumber along like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, unable to bounce the sprightly way that the drawn creatures can) that the spirits of these animals leave little impact (besides the goat-headed Alexander). Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano) has gestures more lithe and expressions more sensitive than the others. He is also the easiest to relate to of the Wild pack, being the Eeyore of the group, perpetually ignored and grumpily accustomed to it.

After the brief suggestion of an Obama parable (novice leader makes outlandish promises to turn the forest into a utopia), the film becomes more concerned with the politics of a family. Relationships within the tribe are complicated and unclear: at first KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) seems representative of the sister Max is watching grow up and away from him. Her overwritten dialogue is replete with clearly enunciated “um’s” and “likes” that are indicators of youth, and her references to her “new friends” Bob and Terry feel like a nod to the aforementioned skater boys. Like a wayward teen, KW has been spending more and more time away from the brood, and one of Carol’s goals is to bring her back again. But dynamics are fluid in this family of beasts, and, by film’s end, there is a distinct divorced-mom-and-dad vibe between KW and Carol, particularly when KW swallows Max to protect him from the angry father figure, and echoes the earlier words of Max’s mother, “You’re out of control!”

While ambiguous actions, like KW’s throwing stones at her bird friends to knock them out of the sky claiming “They love this,” are weird enough to get a person really thinking about dysfunctional relationships, it all amounts to 90-some minutes of forlorn monsters over-explaining their feelings interspersed with several underwhelming, barely motivated fight sequences attempting to keep things lively. Dark, serious tales for children are nothing new (from the Brothers Grimm to Alice’s Adventures to Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket) but humor, however biting and sardonic, is a key element to these works. Sendak’s illustrations for Where the Wild Things Are make you chuckle, so the dearth of humor in this film is surprising, especially coming from Jonze, whose beguiling adult fairytale Being John Malkovich comes so much closer to the spirit of great fantasy literature than this deflated adaptation.

 

 
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