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Bless the Beasts and Children

MOVIE REVIEW
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

WTWTA-Kit20
Warner Bros. Pictures

Spike Jonze has spent years putting together this ambitious adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” one of the iconic staples of 20th-century children’s literature. In so doing, he and co-writer Dave Eggers have had to find a way to transform a 337-word story into a full-length feature, padding out the themes of loneliness and mischievousness that characterized Mr. Sendak’s exploration of the child psyche.

Messrs. Jonze and Eggers have successfully done so — at least during the opening scenes, which are rife with the frustration and sadness of a young boy desperate for friends. They introduce Max (Max Records) and the isolated suburban world he lives in. His dad’s gone; his mom (Catherine Keener) is distracted by work and a potential boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo); and his teenage sister no longer cares about such childlike trivialities as the igloo he’s built out of a snow pile in the front yard. Impeccably cast, first-timer Mr. Records draws out the strong feelings latent in Max’s quest for attention and companionship; he effortlessly cycles through a range of convincing emotions from anger to joy that feel drawn from a deeper place than even he understands.

Of course, the material compels Max’s eventual journey to the land of the wild things. There, he declares himself king of the oversized hairy beings that live as a family in a minimalist fantasy milieu and commences the famed wild rumpus, which lasts until the hurt, pain and negativity of the real world seeps in and ruins their joyful time. The shared journey of Max and the wild things, which parallels the relationship between Max and his mom, conveys the painful confusion that comes with the end of childhood, with the realization that fun can’t last forever and eventually responsibilities take hold.

It’s a poignant notion to be sure, but it can’t compensate for the filmmakers’ failure to find enough of a story arc to inspire sufficient investment in much beyond the thematic conceit. The picture grinds to a halt during Max’s games with the wild things; and it becomes hard not feel the gears churning and the wheels creaking as Messrs. Jonze and Eggers desperately strive to pad out their 10-sentence source. Too often, "Where the Wild Things Are" feels closer to a stylistic exercise than a furnished production, an excuse to show off the spare, dioramic look and sepia visual tones. So much energy has been poured into the elongation of the written work that it seems not too much to ask that Mr. Jonze also expand upon Mr. Sendak’s vision of the land of the wild things, transforming it into something that pops more as a moving picture.

The wild things, rendered here as Mr. Sendak illustrated them, are so outsized that they come across as abstract grotesqueries. The attempt to humanize them by generating a serious, sincere bond with Max falls flat, as they’re too low-fi, looking too much like giants uncomfortably wearing furry suits to be taken seriously. They’re emblematic of the largest problem in Mr. Jonze’s vision, which — with its soundtrack by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, dour atmosphere and obsessively restrained sensibility — could best be described as an emo, indie adaptation of Mr. Sendak’s book. It’s an admirable return to an earlier era of family filmmaking, a period in which C.G.I. and verisimilitude mattered less than big, challenging ideas; but it’s so self-conscious about being that it never gets under your skin in the visceral, immersive way it should.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Opens on Oct. 16 in the United States and on Dec. 11 in Britain.

Directed by Spike Jonze; written by Mr. Jonze and Dave Eggers, based on the book by Maurice Sendak; director of photography, Lance Acord; edited by Eric Zumbrunnen and James Haygood; music by Karen O and Carter Burwell; production designer, K. K. Barrett; produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, John B. Carls, Mr. Sendak and Vincent Landay; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. This film is rated PG by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Max Records (Max), Catherine Keener (Mom), Mark Ruffalo (Boyfriend), Lauren Ambrose (KW), Chris Cooper (Douglas), James Gandolfini (Carol), Catherine O’Hara (Judith), Forest Whitaker (Ira), Paul Dano (Alexander) and Pepita Emmerichs (Claire).

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