Spike Jonze Sincerely Adapts 'Where the Wild Things Are'

Warner Bros. Pictures

City Pulse | October 12, 2009
With the blessing of Where the Wild Things Are author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, director Spike Jonze sincerely adapts Sendak's popular 1963 children's book to the big screen. Dave Eggers's co-writing screenplay credit speaks for the narrative amendments made in fleshing out the minimalist source material to fill up a feature film. Deploying a well-applied use of scale, Jonze creates the imaginary island world to which nine-year-old Max (Max Records) escapes when life with his divorced-and-dating mom (Catherine Keener) and distracted big sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) becomes too much for him. Dressed in a gray wolf pajama-styled costume, Max sets sail in a small sail boat and eventually arrives at the wooded home of a community of giant oddly shaped creatures. James Gandolfini (who played Tony Soprano in the popular HBO series) is the voice of Carol, a beast whose uncontrollable temper takes a toll on the stick-made huts that the group use for shelter, and serves as a refracted mirror of Max's behavior. In order to convince the beasts not to eat him, Max introduces himself as an explorer king and is accepted as such by the likes of woolly "KW" (Lauren Ambrose), a bird-like creature named Douglas (Chris Cooper), and Catherine O'Hara as naysayer Judith. Max has a hard time keeping the wild things happy, and learns some valuable lessons about communicating and thinking about the consequences of his actions. Spike Jonze's no-nonsense movie expands gently on Sendak's elegant 20-page kids' book to address children, acknowledging their primal impulses -- which they must eventually control. While not an "instant classic," Where the Wild Things Are does what it sets out to achieve as a literal but also embellished translation of a literary classic.

Invented plot points and character traits (courtesy of Eggers and Jonze), like the mom's divorce-prompted circumstances, lends an undercurrent of misplaced anger that Max acts out with temper fits that include primal yells. Having Max only wear his favorite animal costume was Sendak's masterstroke of magical realism to support the duality of nature in a tangible way. Like the "animals" that Max befriends, the Lord of the Flies-styled leader wears a costume, or disguise, that carries all sorts of implications about how Max views himself and the world around him, before and after his adventure.

The filmmakers embrace the minimalism of Sendak's graphic vision and respond with a lush natural atmosphere of imagination that's brought into perspective by the varying size ratio of the Wild Things opposed to that of the very small Max. In this area, the movie is very inviting. The famously expensive film gets its value from invisible special effects that animate the creatures with a curious brand of free association. There are moody design elements to savor -- witness the giant fort that Max commands be built by his unpredictable subjects of another species. Here again, Jonze uses scale define the utopic community that Sendak created.

The book's way of saying everything by saying very little comes across in a fantasy story that's carefully balanced between the free expression of its child protagonist, and the gently-touched didacticism of Sendak's thematic message. The film rests on Max Records's shoulders, and the young actor is persuasive every step of the way. The ensemble cast of voice actors all hit their intended register perfectly without every distracting from the illusion of Max's dream. To experience the fantasy world of Maurice Sendak with such reverence to his subtle commentary on society and the confusions of being a child, is an enjoyable and enlightening experience.

(Warner Bros). Rated PG. 108 mins. (B-)
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