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Where the Wild Things Are movie poster

Where the Wild Things Are: Movie Review

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Fantasy
Rated: PG
Directed by:
Spike Jonze
Catherine Keener, Max Records, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini
Released by: Warner Bros. Pictures

In Short: Max's initially fascinating world is ultimately too unfocused and quirky to sustain our interest.
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Max Falls Flat
The Iconic Storybook Is Brought to Overly Quirky Life

For fans of high-minded fantasy, the alliance of arthouse auteur Spike Jonze with author Dave Eggers in bringing a film version of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are to the screen must have seemed like a match made in Williamsburg heaven.  As you would expect, the film marries the book’s poetic rhythm, adolescent logic and darkly fantastic style with Jonze and Egger’s own idiosyncratic sensibilities, and that’s where it ultimately falters.

For those already familiar with the original story of a bratty boy who turns his bedroom into a fantasy world after being punished, it should come as no surprise that the film is a bit more fleshed out.  Young Max (Max Records) is a lonely, frustrated child who, after a violent eruption directed at his struggling single mother (a kind-eyed Catherine Keener), flees to a nearby forest to hide.  Escaping into his imagination, Max travels to a distant land inhabited by a tribe of hairy beasts that share his penchant for destruction, and leads them in fort building and dirt-clod fights after being named their king.  Max immediately bonds with the rambunctious Carol (James Gandolfini) and the warmly aloof KW (Lauren Ambrose), but petty jealousies soon spiral into rivalries and violence amongst the group. And so, after bidding the beasts a tearful farewell, he heads home to his anxious mother, presumably having absorbed some life lessons along the way.

Max and Bernard A film still from Where the Wild Things Are

The film’s biggest problem seems to be one of perspective, as it never seems clear whether we should be experiencing this world through Max’s eyes or examining it from a critical distance.   Given this is essentially a children’s movie for adults, this dichotomy might have seemed like the perfect approach, but one can’t help but feel the film misses out on real emotional and intellectual satisfaction because of it.   It’s quickly obvious that the “Wild Things” are different manifestations of Max’s personality and his familial relationships, but their shifting symbolic identities often seem to confuse him as much as the audience.

This is partly because actor Max Records’ naturalistic performance is as much a liability as it is an asset, and his character’s occasional hyperactivity, cruelty, and naiveté never let the audience forget their protagonist is very much a suffering child. Thanks to some subtle CGI and great voice acting—in particular Gandolfini, Ambrose, and Catherine O’Hara as the cranky Judith—there are more than a few moments when the “Wild Things" themselves come roaring to full kinetic, howling life, but the script is never quite sure if these are characters to be analyzed or empathized with.  Even the film’s visuals seem at odds with each other, placing the brilliantly rendered creatures among stark landscapes, lending it the unfortunate tone of an insufferably minimalist stage play at times.  Much the same way Max experiences it, Jonze and Egger’s initially fascinating world is ultimately too unfocused and quirky to sustain our interest.  It’s hard to believe Max’s imagination could look so bleak and complicated at the same time.

Reviewed by Matt Kane

SG091809 (Updated: 10/16/09 SG)

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