Where the Wild Things Are (PG)
2 stars out of 4
Adapting a book containing just nine sentences of text into a 102-minute movie would be the ultimate double-edged sword for any filmmaker. There's not a lot to remain faithful to and the creative possibilities are virtually endless. Free-spirit director Spike Jones was as good a choice as any to helm this production and he proves, yet again, that some literary works - even children's books - are unfilmable.
While partnering with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman on "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," Jones was able to present the surreal alongside the humdrum with a palpable dreamlike quality which is exactly what "Where the Wild Things Are" (WTWTA) requires but rarely achieves.
The big problem here is that Jones and Kaufman wannabe writer Dave Eggers are working within the framework of a kids' movie and surrealism is not a concept children can grasp or appreciate. Based on the reactions at the preview screening, most tykes will either recoil in horror or wither into lethargic indifference. The same goes for a great many of their parents.
Met with strong criticism upon release, Maurice Sendak's 1963 book was eventually hailed as masterpiece. At its core, it's basically a reworking of "The Wizard of Oz." A child, feeling frustrated and misunderstood, escapes into a fantasy world and discovers life at home wasn't that bad after all. The heroine of "Oz" was a likable sort with a cute dog and caring friends. The lead character in "WTWTA" and most of his fantasy companions are angry, selfish, easily annoyed and often unpleasing to the eye.
Growing up in a household without a father, a distracted teen sister, an overworked mother and no friends, Max (Max Records) is quite resourceful at entertaining himself yet is a little too tightly wound. Prone to petulant outbursts at the slightest provocation, he's in desperate need of a trip to the woodshed.
After one particularly pointless tantrum, Max storms out of the house, runs to a nearby lake, hops in a boat and heads for a glowing island in the distance. There he meets the half dozen creatures that have already been responsible for many a nightmare. Jumping from the printed page into a 2-D medium makes them all the more frightening. As tough as they are to look at, they are remarkably faithful to Sendak's original design.
Carol (James Gandolfini) is the de facto leader, the largest of the bunch and has a jittery demeanor akin to Max. We meet him as he's destroying everything in sight after being spurned by his girlfriend KW (Lauren Ambrose). Also present is the meek goat Alexander (Paul Dano), Carol's wise chicken best friend Douglas (Chris Cooper) and the bickering couple Judith (Catherine O'Hara) and Ira (Forest Whitaker).
Under the threat of becoming dinner, Max unspools a fantastical yarn painting himself as a fearless Viking conqueror which impresses Carol to no end. Receiving mostly everyone's blessing, Max is crowned king, given free reign of the land and proceeds to do a whole bunch of nothing.
For the next hour, Max leads the group in fort building, dirt-clod fights, tumbling down hills and piling on each other - real world childlike pastimes that are fun to do but not so much fun to watch. The movie goes nowhere fast but looks good doing so. The Australian wilderness provides spectacular backdrops with a wide variety (oceans, deserts, forests) of scenery. Technical Oscar nominations are a distinct possibility.
"WTWTA" is a noble failure that won't likely appeal to family member old or young but could very well become a cult hit down the road among easily distracted stoner types. (Warner Bros.)