Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: Woefully mild

Where the Wild Things Are  (2009) • View trailer for Where the Wild Things Are
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for dramatic instensity, scary scenes and one moment of unexpected violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.16.09
Buy DVD: Where the Wild Things Are• Buy Blu-Ray: Where the Wild Things Are [Blu-ray]

Those who wondered how anybody could have fabricated a feature-length film from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are were spot-on.

No doubt encouraged by the success of Robert Zemeckis' 2004 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express  a film that already has, in a few short years, become a holiday tradition  director Spike Jonze and collaborator Dave Eggers apparently felt comfortable "opening up" Sendak's spare little tale ... which probably has fewer words than we hear in the first five minutes of this ill-advised project.
Having pronounced himself king in an effort to avoid being eaten by his new
companions, Max (Max Records) issues his first proclamation: that everybody
indulge in a "wild rumpus."

Jonze may be known for his imagination and inventively warped approach to narrative  consider Being John Malkovich and Adaptation  but neither serves him well here. Perhaps more than anything else, this interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are demonstrates that truly attempting to mimic a 9-year-old boy's scattershot impressions of right and wrong  not to mention his wholly capricious take on make-believe  produces nothing more than a boring, random movie with no point.

And, frankly, no reason to watch it.

OK, fine: I get the broad strokes. The rambunctious and overly sensitive Max (Max Records, gifted with an expressive little face) hasn't gotten over his father's death, at some earlier point in time; he feels left out when his older sister hangs with her friends, and deeply resents his mother's (Catherine Keener) interest in a new male companion.

Fleeing via a lengthy boat journey across the ocean  or, more likely, sinking into a dream when he collapses, exhausted, after having run away  Max encounters a series of massive horned, clawed and hairy creatures: some vaguely familiar for their goat- and bull-like qualities, others unlike anything ever seen before.

Each of these creatures, to overstretch a metaphor, apparently represents a different facet of Max's personality: the petulant side, the lonely side, the ignored side, the quiet side and so forth.

But if Max learns something from his encounters with these creatures  these aspects of himself  it's not readily apparent. Far too much time is spent listening to these "wild things" speak in non sequiturs, never really "conversing" with each other, but instead just stringing words together and babbling like folks who accidentally wolfed down a batch of marijuana brownies.

Beyond that, we simply watch Max and his new friends play: piling atop each other, running through a forest, pelting each other with dirt clods. I don't doubt that this is a 9-year-old boy's idea of a good time, but indulging such hijinks for nearly two hours is more than most viewers will be able to stand.

More to the point  and this is key  there's absolutely no sense that Max has matured at all, when his "adventure" concludes and he "magically" returns, Dorothy-like, to his worried mother. Who rewards the kid's bad behavior by plying him with chocolate cake.

Uh ... no. Don't think so.

Too many real-world concerns remain unaddressed: Max's mother's panic regarding her job; the way in which Max trashed his sister's bedroom; Max's horrible behavior with a guest in the house. These issues haven't gone away simply because Max indulged in a "wild rumpus" of the imagination; leaving them hanging, at the film's end, is quite unsatisfying.

Similarly, Max's relationships with the various "wild things"  and their interactions with each other  are frequently cruel and spiteful, and sometimes rather scary. One ruckus climaxes with an act of shocking violence that is utterly unacceptable in this film.

Again, yes, little boys can be cruel and spiteful, and there's a vague sense that Max perceives the implications of his own bad behavior while watching it enacted by these fanciful creatures. If so, the film doesn't grant us the closure required to cement such understanding.

Besides which, this rather simplistic moral - and the frequently random manner in which it unfolds - simply cannot sustain a film that runs close to two hours.

I recently complained that Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying felt like a 15-minute stand-up monologue with delusions of grandeur; well, Jonze's handling of Where the Wild Things Are is as vacuous as one would expect, given the meager source material.

The good news?

The wild things themselves are marvelous: simply magical. Muppet fans will recognize the signature style of the Jim Henson Company's fabled Creature Shop, augmented on-site by a veritable squadron of costumers and handlers. Their massive size is conveyed through sound effects and camera trickery; when they run, jump and then land with a thud, the entire screen shakes to an appropriately weighty ka-rumph.

Their massive faces are capable of a range of emotions, thanks to expressive, owlishly huge eyes and mouths that can curl impishly into shy smiles. (That said, they spend most of their time looking sad, mortified, chagrined or utterly bereft.)

They are, as well, impressively distinct characters. James Gandolfini's frequently whiny voice is perfect for Carol, the most demonstrative and artistic creature, and the most blatant avatar of Max himself. The overly sensitive Carol is quickest to bruise or take offense, and his size turns a temper tantrum into a fearsome thing.

Chris Cooper voices the rooster-feathered Douglas: the voice of reason. Catherine O'Hara is the sarcastic, mean-spirited Judith; Forest Whitaker is Ira, her patient and long-suffering companion. Paul Dano gets very few lines as the goat-ish Alexander, while Lauren Ambrose comes the closest to being truly wise, as the free-spirited but somewhat melancholy KW.

We get a sense that these creatures can't really exist independent of each other, which fits the notion that they're just manifestations of Max's various traits: a metaphor augmented by their pleasure at sleeping in a big pile together, which grants them the comfort of feeling as though they're one.

The creatures are good at building things, both individually and collectively, and rarely in a manner that obeys the familiar laws of physics; this reflects the entire realm's dream-like state. At Max's encouragement, they construct a huge fort with marvelous underground passageways: precisely the sort of thing a 9-year-old would desire, could his imagination be given substance.

The film's production designers go deliciously berserk with this habitat; it's both captivating and overwhelming.

On his own, Carol has crafted a representation of his realm as a huge tabletop diorama, complete with running water and tiny carved representations of himself and his friends.

The actual point of this particular creation is left vague, however, as is the meaning behind its second appearance: more random spitefulness.

"Random" is the overall word of choice here. This (very loose) adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are too frequently feels as if Jonze let his young star dictate each day's shoot, and then kept only the parts that took place during playground recess. What emerges may be viewable once, to satisfy one's curiosity  although there's a serious risk of falling asleep  but the mere thought of having to suffer through this boring twaddle a second time is enough to send me screaming from the room.

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