A classic by all accounts, and an unimprovable symbiosis of form and content, Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book Where the Wild Things Are ranks very high among “Oh no they didn’t” fodder for movie adaptation. But Spike Jonze is the director, and Dave Eggers is Jonze’s co-writer, and it’s not wrong to wonder what they might find in Sendak’s 10 indelibly illustrated sentences about a mischievous kid on a tantrum-fueled trip to another world.
Mad Max! The boy among the beasts (Max Records) hangs onto one of Maurice Sendak’s classic creatures in Where the Wild Things Are.
Besides, it already has been turned into opera and ballet. Might this new attempt have worked better as the music video it sometimes wants to be? At any rate, the movie has a not-surprising proportions problem: With the framework so enlarged, the feelings seem to shrink. It stresses soulfulness without always exuding it, and proves again that Sendak already gave the Wild Things all the characterization they need.
He also gave young Max’s bedroom an atmosphere more restive than rest-inducing, like Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles, with its theatrical perspective encouraging the expectation of enchantment. Very regrettably, the movie doesn’t let us see that space dissolve into a forest, or return there, post-tantrum, for an affecting yet sentimentality-stripped homecoming.
But Eggers and Jonze do make the place their own, filling the room with vaguely ingratiating signifiers of DIY creative intensity. It seems important that none of the movie Max’s toys—which include a few companionably creepy stuffed animals, and a globe given to him by an encouraging but absent dad—looks mass-produced. This is consistent with the movie’s efforts to remain un-Disneyfied, unafraid of “danger,” and ultimately unwilling to admit that a soundtrack full of Karen O really is just another form of schmaltz.
The aesthetic priorities here only exaggerate the already unavoidable nostalgia. Where the Wild Things Are congratulates itself for the restraint with which it subordinates CGI effects to the retro-righteous aura of handicraft and lo-fi photorealism. The effort is handsomely abetted by production designer K.K. Barrett and cinematographer Lance Acord with an array of dusky hues from the downbeat early-’70s pop culture into which Eggers and Jonze were born, not to mention some wonderfully Muppety costumes from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
A thrasher in his early years and a “Jackass” creator later, Jonze brings rambunctious agility to the proceedings. That famous forest island to which Max escapes might just as soon have been a group-improvised skate park. (Many feelings are expressed through leaping and smashing.) Eggers supplies characteristic compassion and ruminations on companionship. (The denominator of social interaction is the pile-on, both cozy and smothering.)
Well stocked with famous adult actors giving fine performances, Where the Wild Things Are properly belongs to the young unknown Max Records, so mercifully un-kid-actor-like and smart and comprehending, who nails the somehow openhearted petulance his part requires.