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Review: Where the Wild Things Are

Jonze, Eggers, and Sendak aren’t kidding around
By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 19, 2009
3.5 3.5 Stars

 

Where the Wild Things Are | Directed by Spike Jonze | Written by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, based on the book by Maurice Sendak | with Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and Michael Berry Jr. | Warner Bros. | 101 minutes
I can’t speak for the kids, but I would rate Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 40-page children’s picture book up there with Up and Wall•E as topping the recent renaissance in children’s movies. If pressed, I’d rank it close to The Wizard of Oz. It touches as deeply and entertains as generously as those three classics, evoking them in style, themes, and structure.

It begins with the same laconic, cinematic simplicity of the two Pixar hits, using images, editing, music and sound, and a minimum of dialogue. Max (Max Records) seems older than the boy in the wolf suit of the original and perhaps more disturbed. A subtle, nearly wordless montage of episodes — Max building a snow fort, weeping after his sister’s friends smash it, listening to a teacher cheerily describe the death of the sun, biting his mother (Catherine Keener) after eavesdropping on her conversation with her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) — reveals more about juvenile loneliness and rage in 10 minutes than most films on the subject achieve in two trite and talky hours.

And this is scary rage — nothing cutesy about the freeze frame of Max’s face as he attacks the family dog. Propelled by this feral fury, Max runs away from home. He finds an abandoned boat, sails for ages, and struggles against crashing waves to land in the title realm. There he overhears the wild things before he sees them, their non sequiturs tripping over one another like dialogue in a Robert Altman movie. When he does see them, in the glow of a bonfire, they are indeed the Sendak creatures come to life. They’re a little more frightening than Wally the Green Monster; they’re also suspiciously like squabbling, neurotic grown-ups. This is one of Jonze & Eggers’s more inspired additions. The wild things aren’t just projections of Max’s anger, they’re his interpretation of the adult world around him — both his superego and his id, to resort to a Freudian interpretation that I’m sure all the pre-schoolers in the audience will pick up on right away.

Okay, more likely the kids will focus instead on the flawed and endearing personalities of Max’s new friends. The Shrekish Carol (James Gandolfini) is the most charismatic and threatening; his giant chicken pal Douglas (Chris Cooper) barely keeps him under control, especially when it comes to Carol’s ogress friend KW (Lauren Ambrose), who appears to have dumped him. As for passive-aggressiveness, no one can beat the rhinocerotic Judith (Catherine O’Hara). But Alexander (Paul Dano) might be my favorite — he’s the goat version of Eeyore, though sadder and more malicious.

They might be funny, but they’re also wild, and to keep them from eating him, Max must tell a story. In the story he’s a king, and so the wild things make him their king. It’s The Wizard of Oz with Max as the Wizard, and like the Wizard, he makes impossible promises — like keeping out all the sadness. Jonze cuts from that line to a black screen, a frequent device that highlights the magic, as does his knack for the understated, bizarre, and often hilarious detail. What doesn’t work so well is the return voyage. There might be no place like home, but it will never be the same again.

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