Friday, October 16, 2009
By Harry Forbes
This adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 children’s classic has been given an artful and uncompromising mounting by Spike Jonze whose imaginative work on “Being John Malkovich” apparently convinced Sendak that the director would have just the right sensibility to expand his short-on-text tale.
Sendak, in fact, is one of the producers this version, but the screenplay itself – a faithful-in-spirit expansion -- was penned by novelist Dave Eggers.
The melancholy story concerns a rambunctious 9-year-old boy Max (Max Records) who is feeling increasingly abandoned by his big sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and single mother (Catherine Keener).
The sister is shifting her loyalty to her adolescent friends, who destroy his carefully constructed igloo, after which the sister heedlessly drives off with her pals. Max’s work-at-home mom is distracted by her freelance work, and has a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), though her love for the boy is never in doubt.
One night, dressed in his wolf suit, Max throws a spectacular temper tantrum while his mother (Catherine Keener) is preparing dinner for her boyfriend. Max jumps on the kitchen table in his wolf costume, and even bites his mother when she reprimands him.
In the book, he was sent to bed without supper, and the ensuing fantasy emerged from his bedroom. Here, he runs from the house down the suburban streets into a wooded area and onto a boat which takes him to the eponymous land.
When he disembarks, he encounters giant monsters voiced in a pointedly contemporary patois by an interesting cast. Among them, all finely characterized, are Carol (James Gandolfini), with whom Max especially bonds; Douglas (Chris Cooper), LW (Lauren Ambrose), Judith (Catherine O’Hara), Ira (Forest Whitaker), Alexander (Paul Dano).
These non-CGI creatures, the actor’s outsized costumes designed by the Creature Shop of The Jim Henson Company, are well executed. They avoid cuteness, but they’re also rather ugly in their monstrousness, though there’s never any real sense that they might eat him as, we are told, they are capable of doing. It must be said, too, that the landscape is none too appealing either.
The creatures are meant to mirror Max’s childlike imagination and untamed emotions, innermost Freudian thoughts and the people and experiences in his life, rather like Dorothy Gale’s friends on the Yellow Brick Road, but in a far more subtle – and rather less accessible way – than “The Wizard of Oz.”
Max becomes King of the Wild Things, and works out his issues along the way. His anger is manifested in a dirt fight sequence, for instance, and King or not, he learns that power is not all its cracked up to be, presumably learning what it’s like to be a parent. But all in all, not much happens, and after the liveliness of the movie’s opening domestic scenes -- Max chasing the family dog, throwing snowballs at his sister’s friends, wrecking her stuff, the alternately tender and ferocious exchanges with his mother – this section drags.
One admires the craftsmanship and reverence to Sendak’s sensibility, but a certain dreariness pervades. Despite the filmmakers’ remarks to the contrary, the film strikes me as rather dark, uneventful, and bewildering for children, but then again, for the book’s multitudinous fans, perhaps not.
(This film is rated PG by the MPAA for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language.) Print this post