Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze
When did “sincerity” become synonymous with “childishness”? From its hand-lettered opening credits and the hummy, strummy score from “Karen O and the Kids,” Where the Wild Things Are comes labeled “Handle with Care.” Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book is child-logical about the transformative powers of the imagination and the creativity of destruction; co-writers Dave Eggers and director Spike Jonze, the latter recently described in a New York Times Magazine profile as a crash-pad-based skate-rat at heart, similarly value hyperactivity, and emotional over physical plausibility. But their movie also cradles itself in its own hands a bit too gently. The Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” from the film’s trailer, isn’t in the movie, but draws an accurate map of the emotional terrain (and demographic address): a world-shielding pooling of wide-eyed vulnerabilities.
In expanding to feature-length a book that doesn’t take more than ten minutes to read aloud (even with extrapolated funny voices), Jonze and Eggers give wolf-pajama’d pretween Max (Max Records) a Child of Divorce backstory. His older sister and onetime playmate is driven to distraction by friends with cars, while his mother’s (Catherine Keener) best intentions are divided between the job she “really can’t afford to lose,” and a new boyfriend. In his prose adaptation of the screenplay, Eggers’ (sometimes staggeringly naïve) capacity for empathy invests this setup with an everybody-has-their-reasons understanding and a step-by-step credibility-but it’s still essentially trite, especially onscreen, and it makes Max’s acting out less a matter of rambunctiousness than doesn’t-your-heart-just-break neediness. In Sendak’s book, Max is sent to his room without supper; here, he runs away.
After a voyage across nicely lo-fi rear-projected seas, Max reaches an island (the Australian location is shot by Jonze’s regular D.P. Lance Acord, with handheld ease, in dry light and woodsy tones). There, he rumpuses with the Wild Things�€”overgrown Muppets who’re always down for all-fun-till-someone-gets-hurt pigpiling, and who mumble their wants and whims whether or not anyone else is listening (or talking). Most prominent is Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), introduced mad like Max, taking out his fear of abandonment on home furnishings. With Max, he designs a fortress, made from twigs rather than pillows, but the principle is the same: keep everyone you like in, and the rest of the world out. Initially shaggy roughhousers, the Wild Things are revealed as thin-skinned; in balancing clingy Carol with other passive-aggressive (Paul Dano’s mopey Alexander) and aggressive (Catherine O’Hara’s cackling Judith) attention-seekers, Max learns that “it’s hard being a family.”
Where the Wild Things Are was, apparently, a troubled production, with Warner Brothers objecting to Jonze’s indie-deadpan sense of humor and night-lit moments of impending violence. Mostly this can be, and has been, resolved by observing that the studio thought they were producing a kids movie, not a future DVD spine for the trendsetting “prepostgraduate Brooklynites who play Connect Four in bars” bracket. In their roundabout reductive mercenary way, though, the suits may have been on to something. The lesson that Max eventually learns has to do with recognizing the equal solipsism of those around him, thus overcoming his own�€”in other words, to put aside the childish feelings that the movie, in its precious cocooning of fragile egos, initially indulges. This is a good and valuable lesson, but one we should have learned long ago�€”perhaps at the age when we first read Where the Wild Things Are.
Opens October 16