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.

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Where the Wild Things Are. Click image to expand.
Where the Wild Things Are

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).

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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.

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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.

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.

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