Monday, October 26, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (**1/2)

Where the Wild Things Are. 94 mins. PG. Directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers. Starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, and the voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, and Forest Whitaker.

It pains me to say it, as I was really looking forward to this one, but, at best, Where the Wild Things Are is an ambitious misfire. At worst, it's a tedious, melodramatic bore about a little boy and a bunch of manic depressive monsters. There's no denying the heart and soul that went into this movie. Co-writer/director Spike Jonze is a talented guy, and you can sense his passion and devotion behind the camera. A lot of thought went into this adaptation of the beloved children's book by Maurice Sendak, and kudos for turning 13 sentences into a sustainable feature length film. In fact, I liked a lot of things about the movie. The first twenty minutes are highly effective as we see the boy, Max, face relatable childhood problems: a sister who won't play with him, a destroyed snow fort, a mom who'd rather work than play with him. The chords the movie strikes during this opening segment are pure and true. I liked the music by the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O, which perfectly captures the spirit of childhood. The cinematography and art direction are fantastic. I liked the use of giant puppet costumes for the monsters rather than CGI, and think it was a brilliant move to cast James Gandolfini as the voice of the main monster, Carol. Gandolfini has an almost comedic, light tone to his voice, but when he gets angry - it turns scary, and nobody breathes better (or more heavily) than Gandolfini.

So that's the good - should be enough, right? Unfortunately no. Once Max gets to the island, things start to fall apart. The theme of the movie (children feel everything that adults do but don't know how to articulate it) is hammered home time and time again by the half clever/half heavy-handed device of using each monster to represent a facet of Max's personality or one of his family members. The dialogue between Max and the monsters is dull and tepidly written. The "wild rumpus" that marks the main part of Sendak's book is quick and sloppily rendered in the movie. It's clear that Jonze and company didn't have entertainment on their mind when making it - they were trying to make a point. And that's exactly the problem. I can take real. I can take dark and depressing. I could care less if kids like this movie or not. I appreciate that Jonze and company were trying to make a film about childhood for adults. But I cannot stand when entertainment is sacrificed for art. The two are not mutually exclusive, and, in fact, the best movies do both. Where the Wild Things, for all its ambition, is not one of those movies.

- John


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