Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: Creature feature

Posted By on Fri, Oct 16, 2009 at 2:03 PM


By Matt Brunson




STARS Max Records, Catherine Keener

Perhaps it's best to think of Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze's live-action adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book, as the PG answer to this past spring's R-rated Watchmen. In both cases, the filmmakers involved have captured the look and texture of the illustrated page in a manner that is simply breathtaking.

The key difference, though, is one of length. The creators of Watchmen had so much material with which to work, and they were able to excise what they chose and still retain a basically faithful adaptation. But here, Jonze and his co-scripter Dave Eggers have the opposite — and more difficult — problem. Because Sendak's original book is so slender — certainly not enough to fill a 100-minute movie — the pair had to build on characterizations, alter some connecting tissues, and concoct entirely new scenes. The end result isn't a bastardization of the literary classic, but neither is it a further canonization of the acclaimed source. It's the sort of film certain to be poked, prodded, discussed, dismissed and/or deified. But ignored? Never.


Max Records plays young Max, a troubled child not very adept at dealing with anger or frustration. After a spat with his single mom (Catherine Keener) leads to his biting her on the shoulder, Max bolts from the house, soon stumbling on a body of water where a small boat awaits him. Max sails away and eventually arrives at an island inhabited by large, furry beasts who alternate between sounding like confused children and neurotic adults. Max avoids being eaten by these creatures by telling them that he's a powerful king; impressed, they make him their leader. Max especially bonds with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the most temperamental of the monsters, but he enjoys spending time with all these behemoths as they play various games and generally have a good time. But petty squabbles erupt among the beasts, and they turn to Max for guidance. But what does he know? After all, he's only a kid, and one who clearly doesn't always have the answers or advice that the others hope to hear.

Technically, Where the Wild Things Are is a stunning achievement, and the beasts — a combination of costumes and CGI — particularly look astonishing. But there's a reason why Sendak's book runs only a few dozen pages, and by blowing up the story, Jonze has in effect stripped it of much of its wide-eyed wonder. Both the book and the movie are children's tales sporting a dark underbelly, but the film version, unlike its predecessor, is often too literal, resulting in a suffocating atmosphere that further undermines the simplicity of the tale. Like the wild things inhabiting Max's world, it's fascinating but also lumbering -- and (to paraphrase The Troggs) it's unlikely to make everyone's heart sing.

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