Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

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The Wild Things and Max (Max Records) in Where the Wild Things Are
Photo: Warner Bros.

Only a few minutes into Where the Wild Things Are, a young girl seated behind me whispered to her father, “Dad, when will we see the monsters?” This was about ten minutes into this 94 minute film and it wasn’t until about 25 minutes those monsters showed up.

With everything I have read regarding Maurice Sendak’s book that inspired this adaptation, I haven’t seen anyone admitting what draws kids into the story is Max’s wild rumpus with a group of sharp-toothed monsters that eventually come to love him. Instead, it’s a bunch of high-brow commentary on how a book meant for kids ranging from 4 to 8-year-olds connects with them on some higher level. Since when were 8-year-olds reading into books with ten sentences and coming away with some life-affirming understanding as opposed to wanting to just have fun and be a kid? Has being a kid become that miserable of a chore?

Obviously, turning a ten sentence book into a 94-minute feature film means director Spike Jonze and his writing partner Dave Eggers were going to have to embellish greatly on Sendak’s original story. However, I can’t say they added much substance as much as they simply added running time and a weak message blistering home how being a family is hard.

All the monsters from Sendak’s book are here along with a few new additions. They also now have names such as Carol, Alex, Douglas, Ira and Judith. After Max bites his mother (Catherine Keener) he runs away from home and sails off to his fantasy land where he meets this band of broken monsters and the wild rumpus begins.

Some of the monsters’ living situation mirrors Max’s life as he and his sister are beginning to grow apart and his single mother is dating, both situations leaving little time for family interaction with Max. It’s this thread that Jonze and Eggers use to propel their story, but the lost child in the wilderness, searching for reasons is never fulfilled or fully realized. It’s also never successfully mirrored by the monsters. The story of the monsters doesn’t even serve as a successful companion piece for that matter.

Throughout much of the film I was looking for more. I was looking for a reason for this story to be told. I was looking for a deeper connection between the monsters and the people from Max’s life. It wasn’t there. The only real connection to be found is between Max and the monster known as Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) and based on my interpretation Max realizes Carol’s behavior is unacceptable and juvenile, but I never got the impression he learns anything from the experience. I can understand cases being made for the monster known as KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) reflecting Max’s sister and even Alex (voiced by Paul Dano) could represent Max in some ways, but the connections are paper thin and meaningless when it comes to the larger picture if only because nothing is accomplished.

However, despite the aimless and occasionally meandering storyline, this is one hell of an impressive piece of filmmaking. The monsters simply couldn’t have been done any better. A mix between Jim Henson creature effects and CG-animated faces, the monsters were quite simply brought to life. Spectacular effects and voice casting that couldn’t have been better made them a reality, with Gandolfini serving as an excellent choice for the lead monster Carol. His nasal speech patterns added a childlike quality that helps in dampening the fright factor of a horned monster with sharp teeth. My personal favorite, though, was Paul Dano voicing Alex, who was given all the best lines and his soft-spoken delivery made for a character you cheered for every time he was knocked down.

The cinematography from Lance Acord may earn him an Oscar nomination and the music supplied by Karen O. and Carter Burwell accompanies the goings-on perfectly. From the addition of wild sounds of children’s roars to the softer tones supplied by Burwell, this is terrific work. It’s just too bad the combination of imagery and music doesn’t lead us anywhere.

Most interesting will be the response the film receives from kids. Is it too scary for children? Don’t ask Maurice Sendak, he has already said he would tell parents to “go to hell” for simply bringing up the question. Truth is, it’s not too scary, but it will likely be too boring. While adults can at least take away beautiful imagery with excellent musical accompaniment and some stellar voice work, kids will be left wondering just why everyone is so depressed. These monsters may not be scary, but they are all in desperate need of a psychiatrist, and the movie doesn’t do them any favors leaving them in a worse state than they were when Max first arrived.

Excellent filmmaking aside, Where the Wild Things Are came across to me as empty and without purpose. I expect many will find common ground with Max’s character and as a result fall in love with the film, but as for me it missed the mark.

GRADE: C+