Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are
The Charlotte Observer
A picture really is worth a thousand words, or at least a few hundred ill-chosen ones.
In Maurice Sendak's beloved book “Where the Wild Things Are,” Max became king of an imaginary land of growling beasts and “tamed them with a magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once.”
In the film written by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, he tells them he'll blow up their heads if they don't make him king. Aha, one replies. What if we find a way to prevent that? Well, then, Max replies, he has a secret machine that will prevent them from preventing him, and so on and so on. And as they speak, the mystery of the story dissipates like fog in the noonday sun.
A feature-length film naturally had to expand on the few hundred words of Sendak's narrative. (Or did it? Why make it at all?) So Jonze, who also directed, and Eggers imposed a larger vision on Sendak's compact jewel of a story.
But it's a blurry vision that comes into focus only intermittently. Young viewers may exult in the rare moments of physicality and identify with the fine performance by Max Records, who embodies his angry namesake. Mature folks may wonder why a simple and simply beautiful story from their youth has been buried under layers of emotion Woody Allen's psychiatrist might want to pick over.
Director Jonze starts brilliantly: We see Max trying to interact with his older sister's friends, whose boisterous and dismissive attitudes make him cry, and with his loving but busy mom (Catherine Keener), who's trying to fit a new boyfriend into her life.
Max bursts out of the house in one of his too-frequent rages and takes a boat to the island of Wild Things, where Sendak's drawings come to life: The forest and desert environments look right, and the huge creatures' costumes are virtually perfect realizations of the book's illustrations. But the magic dies when we realize that we're on the island Where the Wild Things Are Diagnosed.
Carol, voiced by distractingly recognizable James Gandolfini, is a bipolar creature with abandonment issues. (He's like Tony Soprano with literal fangs.) He's fond of K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), who drifts morosely in and out of the group. Judith (Catherine O'Hara) is overly assertive, Ira (Forest Whitaker) feebly passive. Nobody listens to mopey Alexander the Goat (Paul Dano), and Douglas the Murmuring Chicken (Chris Cooper) seems to have been medicated almost to a coma.
Jonze and Eggers plop Max among creatures who represent many childhood anxieties: fear of exclusion, of being mocked, of having a true self that remains unseen, of being more or less invisible altogether. But these aren't Max's fears: He's full of rage. Nothing on the island teaches him how to control it or channel it into a healthy path, so we don't feel he's made progress when he returns home.
In the most bizarre section, K.W. captures two tiny, blank-eyed, frightened owls named Bob and Terry. All the beasts except Max and Carol claim to understand them and say they're geniuses, though they squawk incomprehensibly.
Bob Daly and Terry Semel ran Warner Bros. in 1999, when the studio mishandled the release of the underrated “Three Kings.” Jonze starred in that movie, so he may be working out his own infantile grudge with this long, dull in-joke. I wonder if Sendak, who was also one of the producers, knew he'd be getting “Where the Wild Shrinks Are.”