March 25, 2010


Take a classic work of children’s fiction, as famous for its art as it is it’s story.  Add an idiosyncratic director with a distinct visual style.  Recipe for success, right?  Wrong.  Unfortunately, Spike Jonze’s highly-anticipated adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Caldecott Medal award-winning Where the Wild Things Are falls strangely flat.  Why after the jump…

Max (Max Records) is a disobedient boy who feels misunderstood by the people around him.  When his mother (Catherine Keener) sends him to bed without supper after a wild outburst during which he bites her, Max runs away from home into the nearby forest (and ostensibly into the realms of his imagination).  He finds a boat and sets sail towards a mysterious island inhabited by the wild things, who make him king.  Although his kingship starts well, matters soon degrade and the wild things start to turn on him.  As Max recognizes in himself the negative character traits exhibited by some of the wild things, he reconciles with them and returns home a more understanding boy himself.  His mother greets him thankfully, everything forgiven.

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Visually the film could not have captured Sendak’s book more perfectly (oddly enough, despite the obvious visual effects and the film being produced by Warner Brothers, the movie looks and feels like an indie flick).  The wild things (voiced by James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano and Lauren Ambrose) literally look like they stepped off the page and onto the screen.  Young Max Records not only holds his own with such notable co-stars but gives an excellent performance; I truly look forward to his work to come.

Where Where the Wild Things Are falls short is in the story.

It’s something we’ve seen time and again with adaptations of children’s books for the very young (such as Dr. Seuss).  The stories are short, simple and to the point, perfect for their intended audience.  However, there is not enough in said stories to sustain a feature film.  The filmmakers are left with one of two options: either they can try to draw out and extend the story from the book, pushing its themes as far as they can possibly take them; or they can depart from the book radically, adding tons of filler and/or reworking the story to such a degree that they retain only the characters and a few minimal situations.


Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers opted for Option 1, in an attempt to remain as true to the book as possible.  Although I do think it was the right choice, the resultant film is a movie that doesn’t go anywhere.  The movie drags to such a degree that it feels like it has been intentionally drawn out (unlike so many others where the plodding plot can be attributed to a lack of editing).  The film further suffers from Max being completely unlikable at the opening of the movie.  Yes, he is supposed to be disobedient, but he is so out-of-control and self-centered that the viewer doesn’t have any sympathy for him–not a good situation for the film’s main character.

The DVD is shown in 2.35:1 widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.  Special features are pretty much a joke, consisting of nothing more than four behind-the-scenes sequences billed as Lance Bangs documentary shorts.  They have some mild interest, but call them what they truly are.

In summation, Where the Wild Things Are is visually impressive but lets one down overall.


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