November 01, 2009

MOVIES: Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)

Based on -- "loosely inspired by" would probably be more accurate -- Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, this is a magnificent movie that is not so much a movie for children as it is a movie about childhood.

Sendak's book is only about 300 words long. It's the story of a small boy who, after arguing with his mother, goes to his room and imagines a journey to the place where the Wild Things are. He names himself their king, and they have a "wild rumpus," after which he comes back to his room, and finds that his mother has supper waiting for him. A faithful adaptation of the book would last for about six minutes, so Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers have expanded on the story.

The first half-hour is the movie's best, a dazzling look at a day in the life of 9-year-old Max (Max Records). Jonze and Eggers do a stunning job of capturing just how mercurial a child's emotions can be; Max goes from delight to tears in the blink of an eye. And when it is time for Max's journey to begin, he actually runs away from home, and we see him travel across the sea in a small boat.

The Wild Things of the movie are not the wordless creatures of Sendak's book. These Wild Things have names, personalities, emotional challenges -- they aren't so much Sendak's Wild Things as they are six monsters in search of a therapist. They are all unhappy; one of their first questions to Max before they crown him their king is "will you make the unhappiness go away."

The Wild Things are played by actors in giant costumes; their facial expressions were added by CGI after filming; and a different set of actors provides their voices. And an impressive voice cast it is, too. Catherine O'Hara and Forest Whitaker are bossy Judith and her henpecked husband Ira; Lauren Ambrose is disenchanted teen K.W., longing to break free of this community and make new friends. Paul Dano is the goat-like Alexander, the smallest of the Wild Things, who perpetually feels ignored; Chris Cooper is Douglas, the sycophant who's willing to be right-hand man to whoever seems to be in charge at the moment.

Best of is James Gandolfini as Carol, the closest thing the Wild Things have to a leader. Carol is prone to wild mood swings and destructive of rage; in a good mood, he can be a kind and compassionate father figure, but everyone is always at least a little bit afraid of him. When big stars are cast to do voice work, they often fall flat because they aren't able to bring sufficient energy to their characters using only their voice; that never happens with Gandolfini, who easily captures the wide range of Carol's shifting moods.

I suppose that those who demand that their adaptations be absolutely faithful will hate this movie, but I've never been one of those. (Don't tell me the book was ruined; the book is right there on your shelf, and you can re-read it anytime you want to.) This movie isn't exactly Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, but it's a marvelous collaboration between two generations of artists, and a spectacular work in its own right.

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