The author of Where the Wild Things Are picked Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) to direct the long-planned film of the beloved children's book. But whatever Maurice Sendak thought the quixotic Jonze would bring to the movie — a penetrating understanding of the thin, allegorical picture book, perhaps — what Jonze delivers, with a script by Dave Eggers, is not a children's movie. This dull, downbeat yet faithful adaptation is a Sesame Street of the Spotless Mind.
Max Records plays Max, a kid who should be beyond donning his old whiskered wolf suit and terrorizing his mom (Catherine Keener). In a wintry opening built around an ends-in-tears snowball fight with his sister's teenage friends, Max comes off as an impulsive, hyper, self-centered brat. But he's sensitive enough to escape to his room filled with plush toys, and to oblige with a fanciful tale when his hard-pressed single mom says, "I could use a story."
But a tantrum in the middle of mom's date (Mark Ruffalo, in a cameo, is the suitor) reveals Max for the beastly boy he is.
"Feed me, woman! Rooaar!"
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He bolts from the house in his funny costume and stumbles across a sailboat that takes him far away, to the island where the Wild Things are.
Jonze creates a vivid organic trees-and-stones setting for this Island of Lost Muppets. They're a sensitive tribe with bad tempers, fragile egos and easily hurt feelings. Max has only to exaggerate his status in the world, and his roar, to convince the plush beasts — voiced by James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano and Oscar winners Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper — that he's their king. Since he promises to end loneliness and create warm, welcoming sleeping piles of wild things, they go along with him.
"Let the wild rumpus start!"
The movie lets Max and the Wild Things allegorically work out worries about relationships, family and mortality. They also build a cool stick fort, but even it gets in the way of their togetherness. Jonze and Eggers fret so much over the group dynamic that they leave out the warmth, the magic of discovery and the whimsy. No wonder Warner Bros. made them reshoot this movie, which was supposed to come out in March 2008. Jonze plainly didn't reshoot enough. Only the romping, wistful childhood-remembered songs by Karen Orzolek (Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame) come close to capturing the right tone.
As a children's film, it's a bore. As a grand film enterprise, Where the Wild Things Are skirts the line between folly and fiasco. It's far too striking and thoughtful to dismiss outright, but it is literal and dour enough to make one wonder just why this book has the reputation it does, and what on Earth the author was thinking in pitching it to Jonze. He got so lost in the "things" that he left the "wild" and the fun out.