Mark Reviews Movies


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Spike Jonze

Cast: Max Records, Catherine Keener, the voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Michael Berry Jr.

MPAA Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 10/16/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Maurice Sendak's picture book Where the Wild Things Are holds a special place in the hearts of millions who read it, gazing at the artistic creatures and connecting with the imagination of a young boy who's sent to his room without dinner. I was not one of them.

If I read Where the Wild Things Are or had it read to me as a child, I don't recall. I did read through it quickly at a store about a month ago. It does have a lot of neat creatures, and Max does indeed get sent to his room without supper only to have a wild adventure and return to his bedroom and get that food only a short amount of time later.

That's the story. It's ten sentences long.

Spike Jonze's adaptation of the beloved children's book runs almost an hour and forty minutes, and sure enough, Max doesn't get supper, imagines a strange world and its inhabitants, and gets to eat at the end. In the time before and in between, he comes across as one with a budding social disorder, runs away from home, gets a crash course in Freudian psychology, and comes to the hefty realization that all things, including the Earth, the sun, the solar system, and probably the entire universe, will eventually end.

It's a lot to handle for a pre-adolescent kid who just wants to have a snowball fight with his older sister and not end up crying in disappointment.

It's also a lot for the movie to handle, so much so, in fact, that its thematic ambitions far outreach its grasp.

Where the Wild Things Are does indeed deserve admiration for its loving actualization of Sendak's world and even for trying to tie so many of the pangs of growing older into what seems a carefree romp through a kid's imagination, but the movie's dissertation-like expansion of the story never truly comes together into anything meaningful.

Max is played by Max Records in an astonishingly real and sympathetic performance. Max is upset that his sister is ignoring his handmade igloo and running off with her friends (not before the stomp on the igloo, of course), and he's also pretty peeved that his mom (Catherine Keener) is so focused on work and her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo).

One night, he gets really mad, causes a scene, bites his mom, and runs away from home. He finds a boat, sails off to a mysterious island, and meets a motley crew of big, furry creatures (and one that looks like a giant chicken and another that looks like a overgrown goat). They're planning on eating him, but with his powers of storytelling, Max instead convinces them he's a king. They decide to make him their king.

The monsters consist of Carol (voice of James Gandolfini), who we quickly learn represents Max's anger. Carol is upset that his previously loving KW (voice of Lauren Ambrose) has met some new friends: a pair of owls who have all the answers but only seem to speak in squawks. KW, then, is representative of Max's mom, and the owls are representative of—it must be inferred—something, too.

Alexander (voice of Paul Dano) is the giant goat, who always thinks his friends are ignoring him, making him a prime candidate to be symbolic of Max's fragile ego, while Judith (voice of Catherine O'Hara) is Max's sarcastic side. There's also Judith's love interest Ira (voice of Forest Whitaker), the oversize chicken Douglas (voice of Chris Cooper), and the silent fuzzy one known as the Bull (voice of Michael Berry Jr.). Again, theory supposes these creatures signify something or someone in regards to Max, but Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers don't seem to care too much for those elements.

Max helps the beasts build a giant fort, where they all believe things will go back to being normal and they will all be happy, but this is a world shaped in part by Max's discovery during science class that the sun will explode burning up the Earth and bringing the solar system as we know it to total darkness.

Needless to say, things on the magical island will not go back to normal, and the monsters will not live happily ever after.

All of this thematic pondering is a heavy burden on the otherwise whimsical story. For every joyous moment of Max and his new friends having a wild rumpus, throwing mud clods at each other, or witnessing Carol's vision of a beastie utopia, there is still Jonze's insistence that there's something deeper beneath the surface, and Jonze isn't afraid to beat that point home without attempting make sense of it.

The creatures, a combination of the Jim Henson's Creature Shop and computer-generated facial features, look great. The entire world is respectably reminiscent of Sendak's work. There's a lot upon which to muse, but if one looks as much into Where the Wild Things Are as Jonze wants us to, it's missing as much as it offers.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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