- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

It seems a strange thing to say about a book fewer than a dozen sentences long, but here it is: “Where the Wild Things Are,” the film, is not a faithful adaptation of its source material.

Let me qualify that. Visually, Spike Jonze’s film seems magically to bring to life writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak’s playful but slightly haunting vision. “Where the Wild Things Are” is a beautifully shot film.

It’s less compelling as a story, though. Mr. Jonze and his co-screenwriter, novelist Dave Eggers, have taken the short, beloved 1963 children’s book and dragged it out into a 101-minute film that feels like a three-hour one.

Few people under the age of 40 don’t know the story. Max misbehaves, his mother sends him to bed without his supper, and suddenly his room becomes a portal to the land where the Wild Things live. Max tames them and becomes their king before missing his mom and returning home to find his still-hot supper awaiting him in his room.

Mr. Jonze and Mr. Eggers give the story a modern twist. Max (Max Records) is provoked into madness by the presence for dinner of his mother’s boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo). But instead of being sent to his room by his mother (Catherine Keener) after he threatens to eat her up, he bites her and runs out of the house.

Here is where the film first begins to lag — Max takes a long, long, long boat journey to the new land. There, he finds a group of creatures who also are interested in eating someone up: Max. He stops them by bragging of his exploits around the world, telling them he was king of the vikings. The creatures get excited — they’ve been looking for a monarch, someone who can solve their petty squabbles and take away their sadness. They crown Max, not realizing he’s just a boy who no more knows the secret to happiness than they do.

The Wild Things are played by real people in costumes, but with computer-generated faces, and voiced by a talented group of actors. James Gandolfini is the touching voice of the alpha male with a heart, Carol, while spunky Lauren Ambrose is the reluctant woman he loves, KW. Judith and Ira, a couple in which the woman wears the pants, are the always-great Catherine O’Hara and a shy Forest Whitaker. Standing slightly apart from the crowd are the birdlike Douglas (Chris Cooper) and goatlike Alexander (Paul Dano).

The Australian landscape enables Mr. Jonze and director of photography Lance Acord to give us some arresting images. Those Wild Things look pretty cool, too, and the combination of real and CGI is seamless. Max looks just like he does in the book, wearing a distinctive, cute wolf costume, complete with ears and whiskers.

The young actor who portrays him, who played the young Mr. Ruffalo earlier this year in “The Brothers Bloom,” is pitch-perfect as an outsider in both worlds who veers between blind anger and blind need.

“Where the Wild Things Are” proves that a family-friendly movie can be visually and musically interesting —the soundtrack is by Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman Karen O and Carter Burwell. It doesn’t have the insipid music and images of so much of today’s children’s fare.

It doesn’t prove a family-friendly film won’t bore the adults, though. (Or, as I suspect in this case, the children, too.) Deep themes are explored here — alienation and loneliness — and the movie seems made for the art house. The emotional departure Max finally takes from the Wild Things almost redeems the rest of the film in its wordless anguish. Yet, for all that, it still doesn’t have the charm of the brief original.

★★½
TITLE: “Where the Wild Things Are”
RATING: PG (mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language)
CREDITS: Directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Mr. Jonze and Dave Eggers based on the book by Maurice Sendak.
RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes
WEB SITE: wherethewildthingsare.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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