Wild Thing, I Wish I Loved You

wild things 4 warner Wild Thing, I Wish I Loved YouWhere the Wild Things Are
Running time 100 minutes
Written by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper

I’m the first to admit that I went into Where the Wild Things Are with perhaps too high expectations. I blame part of this on the most excellent trailer—remember that teaser, released back in March, full of sumptuous, wondrous images set to that infectious Arcade Fire song? It seemed (regardless of the chatter over delays and studio clashes that has followed this project around) to be a perfect combination of parts: Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book; director Spike Jonze, the wacky mind behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (not to mention some of the best music videos around. And hey, remember music videos?); co-writer (with Jonze) Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and co-writer of the charming Away We Go. Plus, have you taken a good look at this Max Records kid, who plays Max in this movie? He has the most sweetly melancholic face—one can’t imagine him just walking into an audition. It seems more likely that the twee trinity of Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Mr. Jonze all joined forces to cook up his genetics, Gattaca-style.

The film starts off pitch-perfect. Young Max, just like in the book, is a mischievous boy who gathers snowballs to pelt his older sister and her friends, makes forts, throws tantrums, etc. But Mr. Jonze is also able to capture how long those childhood afternoons can drag, and how lonely being a kid can be. The rage that gets Max sent out of the room without dinner is more dramatic than it is in the source material (of course, it’s impossible to make a 100-minute movie to match a book that takes somewhere between one and three minutes to read), and is borne of a new backstory about a divorced mom and her new boyfriend (oh hi, Mark Ruffalo!). Suffice it to say, it’s not a mysterious forest that grows out of Max’s bedroom (bummer) but a fantastical journey that Max takes, which involves a seafaring passage that would make the Losties proud. And there, finally, is where we meet our Wild Things.

So here’s the thing: This movie looks so damn perfect. The sunshine filters beautifully through insanely tall trees, and those giant puppets are great-looking and move with a balletic grace that is fascinating to see. Yet once Mr. Jonze and Mr. Eggers depart from the bare-bones text, allowing the Wild Things to speak (it’s a little hard not to think of Tony Soprano when you hear James Gandolfini’s voice, even if it’s coming from a giant puppet), things get a little strange. The gang (which includes effective voice portrayals from Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano and Chris Cooper) is less wild than they are unhappy, and there are some very adultlike gripes and resentments running through the creature community when Max arrives. Which is not to say there aren’t some truly inspired moments within the film (just wait till you meet Bob and Terry). But something doesn’t quite jell, and no matter how gorgeous each set piece is, it doesn’t always entirely add up to a complete and satisfying narrative. I couldn’t help but think, from time to time, how on earth were these guys allowed to make this movie?

This one is certainly not going to be for the Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs crowd. I can’t imagine any young kid seeing it, not just because parts of it are dark and kind of scary, but because I can’t imagine any small fry having the attention span to stick with it. Perhaps the target audience can be identified through the line of Where the Wild Things Are clothes, key chains and decorations available at … Urban Outfitters. 

svilkomerson@observer.com