Starring Max Records, Catherine Keener and the voice of James Gandolfini. Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language. 101 minutes.
Have you ever had a child tell you a story? Was it a sharply-etched anecdote or was it a meandering narrative where this happened and then that happened and then something else happened, with perhaps no real point at all? Spike Jonze has given us a dreary expansion of Maurice Sendak’s childhood staple of a picture book WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, expanding something you would read in less than five minutes to more than twenty times that length. The result may be arty enough for some, but it’s going to be the odd child who doesn’t start getting as fidgety as the film’s hero.
As in the book, Max (Max Records) is a boy who has a temper tantrum and is sent to his room. In the film, he runs away – instead of having his room transform – and he ends up on an island with the “Wild Things.” These are monsters as only Sendak could draw them, at once frightening and cuddly. The realization of these creatures into three-dimensional characters owes a lot to animatronics and a bit more to the actors who voice them, including James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper.
Once Max is on the island, though, several problems arise. First, there’s no coherent narrative. It’s simply a series of incidents that we know will ultimately end with Max returning home. Watching them build a fort or have a “dirt clod” war is not very engaging. Second, Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord have chosen to try to recreate Sendak’s drawings with a very limited color scheme, mostly washed-out greens and browns. There are times you think you’re watching a black-and-white movie. What is engaging on the page doesn’t necessarily work on the big screen.
Worst of all, the monsters spend most of the film complaining and making empty threats. In a picture book, the idea that these monsters are Max’s counterparts is clever. In a long movie, it is like babysitting for a bunch of brats who are indistinguishable from one another. A few are hairy whiners, another one is a hen-like whiner, and let’s not forget the whining goat monster. Some adults may see this as a nightmarish vision of their own childhood, but it’s hard to imagine real children being taken by these characters.
Dull, drab, and unengaging, this is less a flight of fancy than a look at how difficult it is to be a kid, and that being with other kids – even if they’re oversize monsters – without adult supervision isn’t an improvement. Ironically, the story this echoes is not Sendak’s 1963 picture book, but a movie that came out that same year based on a far darker adult novel, “Lord Of The Flies.” While “Where The Wild Things Are” never gets quite that pessimistic about the human condition, it is a depressing exercise that will likely bore some children and leave others upset and confused. While not quite the horror show that the movie of “The Cat In The Hat” turned out to be, this is a far cry from feel-good family entertainment.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.