IT’S WILD OUT THERE FOR KIDS
DESTINED TO BE a favorite of artists, folkies, hipsters, cultists, therapists, film theorists and depressives, if not necessarily children, “Where the Wild Things Are” is a distinctive, perhaps unprecedented, project. It uses its 1963 picture-book inspiration like some sort of combination medical instrument and painter’s brush, to probe and illuminate the themes of loneliness, insecurity and love embedded within the crosshatch patterns of original author Maurice Sendak’s drawings of furry monsters, magical trees and cozy bedrooms.
Directed with much alienating handheld camerawork and an extreme indie/artsy sensibility by Spike Jonze, whose adult fables (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”) have been similarly disorienting, “Where the Wild Things Are” is a major-studio (Warner Bros.), big-budget (close to $100 million) production
that rejects the ease that money brings by eschewing digital technology in favor of handcrafted effects whenever possible. About halfway through the story, Max, the boy in the dirty terrycloth wolf suit, and his new monster friends create a makeshift fort out of wood and dirt; the movie has a similar bird’s nest feel, like something wonderful constructed from twigs and spit.
“Where the Wild Things Are” represents a true and long-protracted labor of love for Jonze and co-scripter Dave Eggers, the writer whose signature book, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” offers a phrase to sum up the filmmakers’ intentions. Transforming Sendak’s 40-page children’s book — a work that contains only 10 sentences — into a live-action feature film is, on the face of it, a daft, doomed, degenerate idea. (Think of Ron Howard’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” an insult to both audiences and Dr. Seuss.) That’s why the film is not so much an adaptation as an expansion of Sendak’s book; it could be the story of a boy who has read the book, rather than the story of the boy in the book itself. One can only hope the movie doesn’t replace the original in the minds of children, who now will be able to identify Sendak’s monsters, the “wild things,” by sex and by such incongruously mundane names as Judith (the one with a horn on its nose) and Alexander (the goat).
The movie opens in the “real” world, where we are introduced to young Max (beautifully played by Max Records), a sensitive boy barely in control of his knife’s-edge emotions. He feels neglected, by his unprotective big sister and his stressed-out mother (Catherine Keener); his father’s absence is unexplained. His playtime quickly turns to tears; his loneliness turns to rage. In his inchoate yearning, Max seems closer to such antiheroes as James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” or Stanley Kowalski, or even Harvey Keitel in “The Bad Lieutenant” than to the kids found in most “children’s” adventure movies.
Is Max’s fearfulness surprising? A teacher tells Max’s class that “even the sun will die,” but that mankind probably won’t be around to be scared by the eternal darkness, thanks to “war, pollution, global warming, tsunamis, earthquakes, meteors...”
After a fight with his mother, Max runs into the night, until he reaches a boat that takes him to the forested island Where the Wild Things Are. These seven beasts speak in the voices and accents of typical, kvetching adults, but their petty jealousies, shifting alliances, flare-ups of temper and playtime injuries are childlike. Faithfully designed to resemble Sendak’s illustrations, the furry, pot-bellied monsters are played by actors in huge suits created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop; computer animation, however, was used to create the expressions that crease the broad faces on their oversized heads.
The wild things accept Max as their king, and they engage in rambunctious dirt-clod fights and runs through the woods, like longtime friends; even so, the monsters and the movie they inhabit are hard to warm up to. Judith (voiced by Catherine O’Hara) calls herself “Debby Downer,” and asks Max if he’ll “keep out all the loneliness” during his reign.
Max’s best friend, more or less, among the wild things is Carol (James Gandolfini), a father figure who longs to reunite with K.W. (Lauren Ambrose). Carol is given to explosions of temper that perhaps reveal why Max’s father is absent, and explain Max’s own instability. “You’re out of control,” K.W. warns Carol. “I just want us all to be together,” Carol claims. In one scene, Max hides from Carol by crawling inside K.W.’s large mouth; the return-to -the -womb significance is confirmed minutes later, when Max is reborn in a sort of slimy regurgitation.
“The psychological implications are sound,” as a beard-stroking quote from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, University of Chicago, states on the sleeve of later editions of Sendak’s book. Like the book, the movie ends on a note of hope and comfort; but the scariness and despair in the film are hard to shake off. The title isn’t a question, but the movie provides an answer: Everywhere.
— John Beifuss: 529-2394
Max Records is Max and Lauren Ambrose lands her voice to K.W. in the kid-oriented (or is it?) fantasy-adventure “Where the Wild Things Are.”