Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mini Review: "Where the Wild Things Are"

As a child, I adored Maurice Sendak's book "Where the Wild Things Are." It told the story of Max, a young boy banished to his room for misbehaving, who imagines himself the king of a land inhabited by monstrous creatures. His first edict: "Let the wild rumpus start!" It was a weird and wonderful flight of fantasy, punctuated by Sendak's imaginative illustrations.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to translate the book into a film, including a failed attempt by the animators at Disney, who only managed to produce some line-drawing test footage before the project was shut down for any number of reasons.

Finally, director Spike Jones (Being John Malkovitch; Adaptation) made a live-action version in 2008, only to have the film delayed because the studio (Warner Bros.) felt the Wild Things themselves weren't expressive enough -- the beasts were played by actors in suits and the Suits were unhappy with the results. After a year or so of tinkering and CGI-enhanced faces for the Wild Things, the movie was released last fall to mixed reviews.

Last night, I finally got to see it On Demand and am sad to report that I found it less than thrilling. The screenplay by Jones and Dave Eggers, expands Sendak's book in a rather unappealing way, turning the disobedient Max into an obnoxious brat and adding subtext to the Wild Things' history that bears little resemblance to the source material (though Sendak, who serves as one of the film's producers, along with Tom Hanks, has said the film serves the book well). Young Max Story plays Max as a petulant and impulsive kid who deserves a smack on the bum for his bad behavior, while Katherine Keener as his mom and Mark Ruffalo as her boyfriend are given little, if anything, to do. The vocal performances by James Gandofini, the always amazing Katherine O'Hara and "Six Feet Under" star Lauren Ambrose as the Wild Things are fine, I suppose, but since their characters lack any real exposition, sussing out why they are so angry with one another is an almost impossible task. I actually spent more time trying to figure out whose voice was whose, rather than paying attention to the rather obtuse storyline.

I will give props to Jones' creative team, who manage to bring Sendak's illustrations to life with remarkable attention to detail; the film's creatures are honest and reliable interpretations of the book's drawings. Some of the movie's visuals are actually quite extraordinary, particularly the model of the perfect world the monster Carrol imagines for himself and his friend and the globe-like fort Max directs the creatures to build. Sadly, adults who warmly remember the book are likely to be confused by the expanded story, while children who are unfamiliar with the source material will probably be frightened by the film's dark tone.

In the end, Where the Wild Things Are isn't exactly a bad movie. But it isn't really a very good one, either. *1/2 (One and a Half Stars Out of Four).

I know there are folks out there who loved this movie, but personally, I think Jones has done much better work in his previous films.

More, anon.


Anonymous said...

I saw it in the theater and didn't care for it at all. It seemed to me that the monsters were different parts of his personality and his interaction with them taught him to understand himself. I found it very disturbing.

Wow...a rare (now) Sat post.

Prospero said...

It counts as my Sunday post, in case I actually get interested in teh Oscars...