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Where the Wild Things Are

01/11/2009. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy Where the Wild Things Are in the USA - or Buy Where the Wild Things Are in the UK

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A boy with emotional problems finds himself on an island with large fluffy animal people. Spike Jonze co-writes and directs this adaptation of the popular 1963 children's book. While the book works fine for the younger set, the film tries to be too much an Alice-in-Wonderland-class story for all ages, but it rarely works for both young and old at the same time.

Rating: high 0 (-4 to +4) or 5/10

The Caldecott Medal Winning children's book WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak is thirty-seven pages and only 338 words. This does not give very material to base a feature-length film upon. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers have fleshed it out into a screenplay for a live action adaptation. That required a lot of invention on their part and the result does not entirely work.

Where the Wild Things Are

Max (played by Max Records) is a boy with problems. He seems to have no friends and has a very short fuse. Only his mother seems to like him and then not all the time. He is reduced to threatening fences to support his sense of being someone. When his older sister's friends destroy his igloo he tracks snow into her room and jumps on her bed. Finally his anger boils over and he puts on his animal pajamas and runs away from home. Taking a small boat and sailing for open water he finds himself swept to a magic island inhabited by large animal people. He tells them that he is a king and they believe him and let him rule them.

As their king Max has all sorts of exciting plans for his people starting with the building of a mighty fortress. Unfortunately, in the animals he sees many of his own attitudes. Animal people with his own faults ruin the wonderful kingdom he had planned.

In some ways this film is a throwback to the TV show "H. R. Pufnstuf". As with that show it was decided that a film or movie could compete with animation by putting actors in cartoon- like costumes. It would not surprise me to find out that some places hand puppets were used, but for the most part the animal people are people in suits that had mechanical controls to provide facial expression.

The result has gotten a whole lot better since the days of "H. R. Pufnstuf", but so has the animation competition. The live-action renderings really capture the images created by Sendak, and children may well enjoy the visuals created. But the enchantment wears off. I saw the film in a full Sunday afternoon crowd. Some of the older children might have been enjoying the film but the five-year-olds in the crowd were restless. It is not clear that even the older children would have known what to make of lines like "happiness is not the best way to be happy." (Come to think of it, I am not sure I get it.)

In addition, the film has a high level of cartoonish violence. Nobody is seriously hurt more than a boo-boo. But there is a fair amount of heavy animal roughhousing. One cannot count on a whole lot of emotion continuity in this film. Characters who do not like each other in one scene may be friends in the next sequence. Other sorts of continuity are missing also. We have the ground covered with snow in one sequence and without much feel for passage of time the snow seems to have entirely gone away the next time we look.

There are several familiar voices for characters. The animal-man closest to Max is Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini). Catherine O'Hara voices the character of Judith. Chris Cooper does Carol's best friend, the birdman Douglas. Forest Whitaker takes the role of Ira. With top-notch actors like that one would expect characters that the viewer can come away feeling he knows. Sadly that is not the case here. Human-animals remain cryptic.

They talk like normal people, but not so that one can feel he knows any of them. Their lead is Carol who seems like a spoiled child. But we don't know him much better than that. It may have been a mistake for Jonze to direct his own screenplay. He knows what emotions he wanted the characters to be conveying, but he probably is not seeing the result as an outsider and realising that they are just not connecting with the viewer.

This is a story that meanders and loses much of its audience, young and old, but perhaps not in the same places. I rate WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE a high 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper

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