09 November 2009


Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is everything the book is not: overlong, talky, ugly, and dull. While I’m astonished that the movie received so many admiring reviews in the press, I’m not surprised that moviegoers have not (as yet) expressed disappointment by staging a riot or tearing down the theater, for this movie simply isn’t good enough to excite any kind of passions.

In general, the picture seems to have been created by that rare species, the American adult male who has spent too much time in psychotherapy, and Jonze and his collaborators indulge at length in the fantastical notion that the dysfunctions of the Wild Things — depicted here as a kind of family — will be of absorbing interest to others. Instead, the dialogue is painfully tedious.

This is a shame, because on most other levels, the Wild Things are beautifully realized: as cuddly as they are strange and menacing. If they had anything worth expressing, the Wild Things would certainly have the means, for they’ve got delicately nuanced CGI animation to bring emotion to their shaggy faces, and their voices are those of excellent actors: James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and Lauren Ambrose. Gandolfini is given the lion’s share of the dialogue, but only O’Hara manages to create a character as dimensional as the costume from which it emanates.

Sendak’s book has limited plot, the better to let young readers project their own stories into the pictures; whereas movie audiences pretty much demand clearly constructed narrative. Jonze therefore couldn’t make the film that would have served the book best — an impressionistic collection of images. So be it, but I don’t understand why he surrendered so many of the best images in the book (especially the wonderful moment when Max’s bedroom is transformed into a forest). I do understand why he washed out the color in the scenes in the Land of the Wild Things: he wanted to make the images seem stranger. But without color, the images are also dull, in several senses. Jonze sabotaged what should have been his signal achievement.

Among the human actors, young Max Records is borderline pretty, which is all wrong for our hero, Max. And though at times he locates and exposes some profound emotional characterization, he’s frequently too self-conscious. During his rampages at the beginning of the film, for example, he keeps sneaking peeks at the camera. As his mother, Catherine Keener fills in whole chapters of back-story with a glance and a gesture, and her depiction of maternal love would be the best thing in the movie, if this were supposed to be a movie about mothers.

But it isn’t, of course. I now suspect that the several child-friends who have seen the picture were trying to protect adults like their parents and me when they described themselves as merely disappointed with Where the Wild Things Are. They wanted to let us down easy. We all grew up with the book. But for them the dream of Max’s long night is fresh and real, almost untouched by nostalgia — and nothing at all like this movie.

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