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:
I'm trying to get to the bottom of my animus toward Where the Wild Things Are (Warner Bros. Pictures), Spike Jonze's adaptation of the classic children's picture book by Maurice Sendak. It may require some time on the couch. When I learned—at the first rumblings of the slow-mounting wave of hype that's been preceding this movie for years now—that Wild Things was destined for the multiplex, I felt a chill of dread. The precedent for big-screen adaptations of mid-20th-century, golden-age children's books—Dr. Seuss, E.B. White—wasn't promising. There were two bad roads the Wild Things movie could potentially go down: the Cat in the Hat road (a grievous debasement of the source text with a big-name comedian in latex makeup delivering some awful, slangy "updating" of Seussian language) or the Charlotte's Web road (a literary adaptation in the decorous mode, respectful of the original but sentimentalized and bland).
To its credit, this Where the Wild ThingsAre steers far clear of both these approaches. It's a children's book adaptation of a sort that hasn't been tried before. Spike Jonze, the wunderkind music-video director who made Being John Malkovichand Adaptation, chose to use the book as a springboard for an idiosyncratic, deeply personal film that would be (to paraphrase a rave review given to Sendak's book in Life in 1967) not so much for children, or even about them, as by a child. The script, by novelist and memoirist Dave Eggers, neither riffs on the book nor reproduces it. Rather, Eggers imagines another, longer story in the interstices of the 37-page original (a story that now actually exists in book form, with the publication of Eggers' 285-page, fake-fur-bound "novelization," The Wild Things.)Jonze and Eggers' approach to the book is both original and well-intentioned; it's clear that they take both Sendak and childhood seriously (though not as seriously as they take themselves). It's just too bad the end result isn't a better movie.
If you've either had a child or been one in the past 40 years, you already know the story of Where the Wild Things Are. A little boy named Max puts on a wolf suit one night and misbehaves, telling his mother, "I'LL EAT YOU UP!" She sends him to bed without dinner, and while he pouts, his room magically transforms into a forest, from which he sets sail to an island full of frightening beasts. He tames the creatures with a powerful stare, becomes their king, and plays with them until, missing his mother, he sails home again to find a hot dinner waiting for him in his room. The story is as elemental as it gets, a dreamlike journey through the childlike psyche that takes place in the brief span of what parents these days call a "time out."
It's that elemental, compact quality that makes Where the Wild Things Are tough to adapt as a feature-length film (though it might have made a great 20-minute short). Where the Wild ThingsAre doesn't need to be glossed, analyzed, or expanded. It's just there, like some perfectly formed natural monument or an Easter Island head. We know everything we need to know about Max and his mother from their one exchange of dialogue in the book: "His mother called him 'WILD THING!' and Max said 'I'LL EAT YOU UP!' " It adds nothing to know that Max's mother (Catherine Keener, perfect in a tiny role) is divorced with a boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) and financial worries. Or that Max (the remarkable Max Records, who was only 9 at the time of filming) is angry at his teenage sister for destroying the igloo he built in the snow. Jonze tries to recreate the book's in medias res, beginning by opening the film on a series of abrupt cuts as Max races from room to room, raising hell. The effect is bracing, disorienting, and terrific—but, almost immediately, that careening momentum is slowed by the need to provide a psychological back story for the boy's misbehavior.