This morning I saw Where the Wild Things Are, starring Max Records and the voice of James Gandolfini.
Based on the classic children's book of the same name, I was apprehensive when I heard it was going to be turned into a live-action film—the movie is never as good as the book, and how dare Director Spike Jonze risk tarnishing one of my beloved childhood reads?
I went back and forth with those thoughts after I saw the nearly universal praise showered upon the film by many notable critics who I faithfully trust. There must be something magical about it, I assumed. They must see the spirit of the text come to life in a way they never imagined.
So I decided to give it a go and spent the majority of the film feeling guilty for getting bored and looking at my watch.
But first, the positive stuff: Max Records, a first-time actor who plays Max, absolutely embodies the essence of the child in the book. He's smart, vulnerable, sweet and angry, just as he should be. The beginning of the film is also strong—Catherine Keener as Max's mom is convincing as a haggard single parent trying to navigate a difficult job and balance raising two children on her own. We see no evidence of Dad, but realize how uncomfortable Max is when Mom has a date over for dinner. So far, so good.
The transition from Max's bedroom (where he's sent without dinner, just like the book) to the place Where the Wild Things Are is more elaborate than it needs to be and will probably scare the bejesus out of children under the age of 10 or so, but he gets there. At night. Via some terrifying (yet beautiful in the daytime) beach on the Australian coast.
Instead of "staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once" to become the Wild Things' king, he simply tells them he's their king, and they curiously accept that.
"They" are a dysfunctional family of beings that look identical to the drawings in Sendak's book, but sound like a collection of dumbed-down Hollywood actors...er...because that's where their voices come from.
And therein lies the largest problem I had with the movie: the all-too-recognizable voices.
I'm sorry, but James Gandolfini will always be Tony Soprano. And Lauren Ambrose will always be Claire from Six Feet Under. Those two especially, have such distinct speaking patterns it's hard not to picture the physical human while you're watching the mechanical animal. It's the first thing that removes you from your childhood impressions of the story.
The second is the assignment of personalities to each "thing." There's the Big Mean Man (Carol) who's driven away the Strong Independent Woman (KW), the Fighting Couple (Ira and Judith), the Outcasts (Terry and Bob), and so forth. By personifying them with stereotypical human behaviors, the splendor of the unknown is removed, leaving little hope for magic to appear.
Legend has it Maurice Sendak fashioned the "Things" after his extended family. If that's true, he was smart not to name them specifically or box them into any traits. Ambiguity is a good thing.
Another annoyance is the blatant way in which allegory is presented again and again. When Max arrives, the Things want him to "take away the sadness." A few days later, they want to build a utopia (but not allow everyone to sleep in the pile).
Such obvious lessons are fine for a children's film, but the way it's shot and shown makes it feel like it's for us adults. And if that's the case, the result is somewhat melancholy, as we know the idealism most of us have in youth fades considerably the older we get.
Jonze should be commended for the visual beauty of this film, and for discovering a great young actor who undoubtedly has a fine career ahead of him.
But the story for me shall remain where it belongs—in the pages of my well-worn copy of the book.