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'Where the Wild Things Are'
Unlike the book, Spike Jonze's film leaves little to the imagination
Howard Schumann (howard16)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2009-11-02 11:00 (KST)   
Howard Schumann rates "Where the Wild Things Are" a B.  <Editor's Note>
In Maurice Sendak's entrancing children's picture book from 1963, "Where the Wild Things Are", Max, a lonely 9-year-old child has a tantrum and is called a "wild thing" by his mother who sends him to his room without supper. In his bedroom a forest grows and a boat comes along so that Max can sail away to a forest where wild beasts "roar their terrible roar", and "gnash their terrible teeth. Max uses magic to tame the beasts by "staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once" and becomes their king. Soon, however, he wants to be where someone loves him more and returns home to find his supper waiting for him, still hot.

This classic book has now been transformed into the 100-minute feature film Where the Wild Things Are by Spike Jonze who wrote the screenplay along with Dave Eggers. The film combines real actors, animated puppets, and CGI effects with a background of indie rock music. Unlike the book, however, which allows us to transport ourselves into a little boy's imagination by using our own, the film loses its way through a heavy-handed literalness that drains away most of the magic. For example, the spell that Max creates in the book by staring into the eyes of the wild things becomes a threat to blow up their heads if they don't make him king and the joy of the ruckus in the book becomes a game of war with everyone throwing dirt clods at each other.

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"Where the Wild Things Are" opens in an undisclosed suburban location in the middle of winter. Max (Max Records) builds an igloo which is destroyed by teenagers after he starts throwing snowballs at them. Devastated, the boy takes out his anger on his sister Claire (Pepita Emmericjs) by wrecking her room. His anger takes on even more mass when he sees his mother (Catherine Keener) with a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) in the living room. After biting her, she says he's "out of control" and he runs out of the house and she chases him to the woods where he yells and screams some more. It is then that Max sails away on his boat to the land of the wild things. Filmed in Australia, the forest and desert scenes are perfectly realized in the outstanding cinematography of Lance Acord and the creatures, representations of different animals that are at least eight feet tall, wear costumes that are almost exact replications of the book's illustrations.

Max first meets Carol, the leader of the beasts whose voice is that of Soprano's star James Gandolfini. Carol strangely seems to lack consistency in his behavior. One minute he is sad, the next minute angry, throwing things at the others and destroying their shelters, an accurate representation perhaps of the anxiety that Max is feeling. Carol decides that Max should be the king of the extended clan that includes Judith (Catherine O'Hara), Ira (Forest Whitaker), a goat (Paul Dano), the bird-like Douglas (Chris Cooper) and KW (Lauren Ambrose), all sadly pessimistic and given to non-stop talking. One of the things they ask Max when he becomes king is: "Will you keep out all the sadness?" and Max promises to lead them to a life without sadness but is unable to fulfill his promise.

In one of the film's best scenes, Max triumphantly sits on Carol's head holding on to his horns as he is told that he owns the kingdom. Unfortunately, nothing really happens in the forest that allows Max to discover the difference between healthy and unhealthy ways to express his aggression, and he does not express any feeling of regret for his behavior when he reaches home.

"Where the Wild Things" works hard to have the viewer identify with Max and his fear of being invisible and succeeds at least some of the time. Missing for me, however, is the experience of growth or even the idea that something positive has been won, other than a chocolate cake.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Howard Schumann

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