Where the Wild Things Are reviewed.

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Oct. 15 2009 2:12 PM

Where the Mildly Depressed Things Are

Spike Jonze's adaptation of the Sendak classic has too many mopey monsters, not enough Max.

After you've seen Where The Wild Things Are, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special discussion of Spike Jonze's adaptation of this children's classic:

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Everybody in this movie gets a psychological back story, including, most drearily, the wild things themselves. When Max arrives at the island, his first encounter is with a beast having a tantrum analogous to his own: Carol (a male beast despite the name, voiced by James Gandolfini) is hurling himself around the creatures' encampment, demolishing the thatched huts his fellow wild things have constructed. Looking disapprovingly on Carol's rampage is a menagerie of beasties whom I soon desisted from trying to keep straight: There's the cranky, horn-nosed Judith (voice of Catherine O'Hara); big-nosed and sad-eyed Ira (Forest Whitaker); Alexander, an introspective goat (Paul Dano); Douglas, a peacemaking chicken (Chris Cooper); and the free-spirited K.W., a sort of girl-thing with long red hair (Lauren Ambrose).

Let it be said that the wild things as physical beings—mixed creations of full-body puppetry, studio voice work, and digital manipulation—are absolute marvels. Any fear that they would have the sleek, weightless, depressingly synthetic look of all CGI characters not created by Pixar proves unfounded. These lurching beings, with their droopy, expressive faces and dirty, matted fur, feel as real and present as flesh-and-blood humans. The casting of household-name actors as the beasts can be distracting at times: God bless James Gandolfini for trying, but will he ever be able to escape Tony Soprano? Still, all the voice actors do fine work, especially Catherine O'Hara as the kvetching, conniving Judith.

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The problem isn't the way the beasts look and sound; it's what they say and do for the nearly 80 minutes of on-screen time they occupy. Jonze and Eggers are both gifted at engineering isolated moments of emotional intensity. When the wild things race through the forest to the sound of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song or leap atop Max and one another in a great, snuggly pile, there's an undeniable rush of pleasure. (You can get it in its purest form by watching the trailer.) But in between these hits of energy are long swaths of desultory narrative about the relationships among the wild things themselves: Judith is jealous of Carol because of his special closeness to Max. Carol is bummed that K.W. has made friends outside the wild-thing community. Alexander struggles with the self-esteem issues you might expect from a puny, introverted goat. Essentially, the entire middle section could be summed up as follows: Fuzzy guys build a stick fort, sit inside it, and mope. If I avoid taking my 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter to this movie, it won't be because the wild things would scare her. (They might frighten some children, but I live with a miniature adrenaline junkie.) It'll be because their endless therapeutic workshopping would bore her stiff.

At heart, the original Where the Wild Things Are isn't about the wild things at all—the furry beasts are stand-ins for Max's demons, externalizations of his secret aggressions and fears. (In this spellbinding interview, Sendak tells Bill Moyers that he drew the beasts based on the sense memory of his terrifying old Jewish relatives, looming in for a kiss.) Assigning each wild thing his or her own demons, and turning the story into a chronicle of the beasts' power struggles and hurt feelings, drains the energy out of the story we really care about: Max's journey to a mysterious place that's both outside and inside—and how he finds his way back home again. Slate V: The critics on Where the Wild Things Are and other new releases