Fleet of foot, emotionally attuned to its subject and instinctively faithful to its celebrated source, “Where the Wild Things Are” earns a lot of points for its hand-crafted look and unhomogenized, dare-one-say organic rendering of unrestrained youthful imagination. But director Spike Jonze’s sharp instincts and vibrant visual style can’t quite compensate for the lack of narrative eventfulness that increasingly bogs down this bright-minded picture. Widespread curiosity about the cinematic fate of Maurice Sendak’s childhood perennial looks to spur sizable if not stellar commercial results in all markets, including on Imax screens.
Thematically, comparisons to everything from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Coraline” are not out of order for this flight of fancy on the part of an emotionally neglected 9-year-old boy; the driving impulse to escape an oppressive real life through creative fantasy is the same in all these books-to-films, as is their success in speaking simultaneously to children and adults. At the same time, contrasting “Wild Things” to two such superlative works in the same vein sharply shows up the new film’s lack of density and complexity.
Granted, Jonze had a lot less to work with going in, as Sendak’s 1963 volume, consisting of just 18 picture panels and 338 words of text, can be digested in less than five minutes. It’s a simple but powerfully evocative tale of a mischievous boy who, sent to bed without supper, finds his room transformed into a dense forest and, after a long sea voyage, lands on an island populated by several fearsome-looking beasts, whom he tricks into believing he’s “the most wild thing of all.”
The most bracing section of the film is the first 15 minutes. Using a spot-on handheld camera and deft edits ruthlessly timed to when you need an air intake, Jonze pins the action on the aggressive energy of Max (Max Records) as he terrorizes his dog, bombards neighbor kids with snowballs and disrupts cozy time his mother (Catherine Keener) tries to have with a boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo, barely present). A great-looking kid, Records behaves with credible abandon and, without any child-actor mannerisms, provides the film with a solid center throughout.
Perhaps the greatest liberty Jonze and screenwriting cohort Dave Eggers take with Sendak’s little yarn is their dispensing with the flowering of Max’s bedroom, instead having him run off into some woods in his white wolf costume and find a sailboat that takes him through turbulent seas to a distant shore.
Upon arrival, Max finds six large and potentially dangerous creatures variously outfitted with scary horns, sharp claws, pointy teeth and large stomachs that need filling. Taking advantage of the beasts’ general forlornness and evident need of an authority figure, Max introduces himself and is quickly accepted as their king. As in the book, Max’s immediate command is, “Let the wild rumpus start!,” whereupon one and all engage in mad behavior worthy of kids of all ages. By the time everyone calms down, however, it dawns that these big wild things are just like people — in fact, rather too much so.
Free to have the wild things speak however they wanted, Jonze and Eggers surprisingly give them the voices and attitudes of middle-aged urban kibitzers; vaguely complainy and neurotic, the creatures are dominated by their sense of isolation and sadness. On the face of it, this is a choice with some wit behind it. But it also defangs the beasts from the outset — one never fears that any of them would dream of making a meal out of Max — and in the long run makes them far too ordinary.
Absent any sense of jeopardy or dramatic complications, the 70-odd minutes of screen time Max spends on the island (beautifully represented by rugged locations on the southern Australian coast near Melbourne) becomes a blur of rambunctious shenanigans, fort building, pretend warfare and confided feelings, particularly on the part of the imposing Carol (James Gandolfini), the most developed wild thing and the one to whom Max becomes closest.
There are fine creative inventions along the way, notably the large birds’ nest-style structures the island inhabitants build and two funny squawking owls that aren’t in the book. But nothing much is ever at stake, causing a story that begins in dynamic fashion to slowly devolve to the level of fleeting whimsy.
Most of the attention the film received during its prolonged production centered on the difficulty of seamlessly combining the large creature costumes with CGI facial expressions. The wild things move around pretty well and interact with Max in a credible way that fully justifies the no doubt difficult decision not to use CGI all the way. All the more ironic, then, that the film’s biggest problem is not the look of the creatures but the manner in which they speak.
That said, the thesps provide low-key, nuanced readings, with Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose particularly distinguishing themselves with dialogue that often seems odd coming from the toothsome mouths seen onscreen.
Excellent production values stress the relative realness of what’s on view compared to the digital worlds of most kidpics these days. The alt-rock tenor of the music scoring is refreshing at first, but the predictability of the music cues proves increasingly wearisome.