1 hour, 41 minutes
Director: Spike Jonze
Director Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are" has to be the most peevish kid's movie since "Willy Wonka," "Polar Express" or even "Up." Now, this is not a bad thing; just be warned that screenwriters Jonze and author David Eggers have constructed something akin to an adult reflection on the pains of growing up emotionally, and it comes out feeling like a mash-up between Lewis Carroll and Kurt Cobain on a blue day, with a little of Ingmar Bergman to flavor the leaden stock. This means there is a lot of angst to go around, so much so that it may leave a bitter taste in mouths of some small kids who probably won't understand the primal aggressiveness and moodiness of Maurice Sendak's monsters. However, they have to learn somewhere, so they might as well start with a good movie like "Where the Wild Things Are," where the moviemakers may have missed the mark in some respects, but never out of commercializing their work.
Jonze is a mystery of sorts. I never think of him as a professional director per-se until I see one of his movies, and I then I'm reminded of how original his unpretentious eccentricities make his movies feel just right. His greatest stuff -- like "Adaptation," Bjork's video of "It's Oh So Quiet" and Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" which allowed Christopher Walken to do what he loves the most (tap dance) -- make a point of lending a feeling of uncomfortable comfort. Jonze takes familiar themes, and especially images, and assembles them askew, as to hide his aesthetic insurgencies, and the viewer is silently sabotaged. Take for example the last 20 minutes of "Adaptation" where real life author Susan Orlean, as portrayed as Meryl Streep, runs around with a shotgun trying to kill screenwriter Charlie Kauffman. It's good stuff without calling attention to how good it really is.
"Where the Wild Things Are" is a faithful adaptation of the book, as it should be with author Maurice Sendak's forked-tongue having guided Jonze and Eggers. The movie opens with 9-year-old Max (Max Records) at first innocently roughhousing with his big sister's friends, until his frustration and aggressiveness becomes a little too demanding. Max's unhappiness, we find, may stem from a missing dad, loneliness or maturing, but it doesn't mean he has to like it. One night when mom (perfectly maternal Catherine Keener) has her boyfriend over, Max acts out and runs away, finds a boat and sails to an island where there are more than a few monsters to match is temperament.
"Where the Wild Things Are" could be seen as Jonze's failed epic. Every director needs one: Francis Ford Coppola has "Apocalypse Now," Werner Herzog "Fitzcarraldo" and James Cameron "Avatar." It's as if the material itself was too much for their talents to wrap their arms around, and in Jonze's case, I feel it is more of not having enough of a story to work with. What there is, however, is strangely haunting, as if beamed directly from a child's psyche. The monsters themselves are quite brilliant, wisely built and operated by Jim Henson's Creature Shop with a little bit of digital manipulation to smooth out the edges. It is the voice of James Gandolfini's monster Carol, which really gives the movie its weight. Gandolfini, a subtle master of intonation, lends Carol the pathos akin to Max's pain. It's a performance that is overlooked, but illustrative of what a good actor can achieve despite the limitations.