Spike Jonze has given us more pleasure than most other filmmakers, just in smaller doses. Like this:
And of course this:
A Spike Jonze short film of Maurice Sendak’s pint-sized classic Where the Wild Things Are might have been solid gold. (An animated short was produced in 1973.) But Jonze has attempted a full-length, live-action version, which makes no sense. Then again, on paper, Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002) didn’t make a lot of sense, either, but he and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman conjured movie magic from them. There was hope.
And there is fulfillment. Where the Wild Things Are is by no means a disgrace, like the godawful movies torn anguished and bleeding from the carcasses of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat. It’s respectful. It may grow on me. But I sympathized with the guy sitting across from me at the screening, who woke up when the end credits rolled, joined in the polite, scattered applause, and fled. Truth be told, I was a little droopy too.
I don’t think I have to tell you the story, which, besides the book and the animated version, has also been a ballet and an opera since 1963, and is only 400 words long. But I do have to tell you the backstory, which Jonze and Dave Eggers have supplied. Nine-year-old Max (played by a relative newcomer with the perfect Popdose name, Max Records) is having abandonment issues, first with his older sister, who leaves him to fend for himself in a snowball fight with the neighbors, then with his harassed mom (Catherine Keener). Max gets back at his sister by stomping all over her room in his wet snow boots. When his mother, already simmering over that episode, explodes when he dons a wolf costume and acts out in front of her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo, severely overqualified for a minute-long part) Max hightails it out of the house, and after a tumultuous sea voyage finds himself … where the wild things are.
These are, however, fairly mild things. Crafted by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, and augmented by digitized facial expressions, they claim to need a king, but a few months on Prozac might do the trick. There’s the sorrowful Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini, who befriends Max, and becomes his consigliere when the boy assumes the throne. (Other actors stuck in the 9’-tall costumes had to tough it out in the wilds of Australia, where the film was mostly shot.) Uneasy lies the crown, though, as the wild things reveal their neuroses. Carol is hung up on KW (Lauren Ambrose), who’d rather split the scene. And no wonder: Cranky Judith (Catherine O’Hara) is always sniping at Max, as he tries to rally the beasts long enough to build the magical fort of his dreams. Her endlessly patient companion, Ira (Forest Whitaker), is no real help, nor is the rooster-ish Douglas (Adaptation Oscar winner Chris Cooper) or goat-horned Alexander (Paul Dano), whose personalities are even less defined.
The creatures rouse themselves long enough to indulge in their “wild rumpus,” then later smack each other with dirt clods, and there are a couple of fleetingly monstrous moments: one character loses a limb (which is replaced with tree branches) and Max is forced to jump down KW’s throat and hide in her stomach when the things get out of hand. The teasing suggestion that KW might actually consume Max provides the film with one of its more offbeat moments, then it’s back to lumbering around the forests, deserts, and seascapes. Cinematographer Lance Acord injects a bit of spectacle into some of the locales, so a stroll through the sands looks like Lawrence of Arabia with Muppets.
Restraint, however, is the guiding principle. Where the Wild Things Are has been analyzed to death, and Jonze and Eggers have done their homework, laying the psychological groundwork for Max’s flight from home (lots of semi-frantic handheld camerawork in the early scenes), splitting Max’s roiling id into the creatures to represent aspects of himself (dutiful, passive, pissed-off), etc. It’s all sort of therapeutic, in an Eggersy sort of way—and it misses the whimsical scariness that drew kids, the presumed target audience, to the material in the first place. Jonze’s personality seems submerged. What would Kaufman have made of this?
Records I liked; the kid’s a natural, and to the extent that the movie works it does because his energy stirs the sleepy wild things. The costumes adhere to the book but have an unenchanted heaviness to them, and everyone except the caustic O’Hara and the purring Ambrose speaks their lines in the same muted, diffident, whatever tones. “We thought of them as people the entire time,” Eggers says in the press notes. People who spend some of their time with their analyst; Carol could be a Tony Soprano who followed Dr. Melfi’s advice to the letter, and still couldn’t hack it. This is the one movie that could have used some of Jack Black’s undisciplined rowdiness. (It might have used less of Karen O’s hipster lullaby music.)
I don’t want to undersell the charms of Where the Wild Things Are. It has some. But you’ll understand why KW wants to be moving along. I’m interested to hear what children make of this sober treatment, which for all its sincerity is as much fun as an anger management class.