Boring. That's the criticism I keep hearing and reading about Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze's brilliant, haunting adaptation of Maurice Sendak's seminal tale of Max and his there-and-back-again voyage over oceans and through time.
I should preface this by asserting how much I was anticipating this movie, probably more than any this year. I can hardly overstate the effect the book had on my young, impressionable mind. I know that puts me in rarefied company with some 35 billion other kids, but many of my loves can be traced directly back to that source: monsters, darkness, teddy bears strung up by the neck:
What I want to say is this: WTWTA is no children's movie. Or rather I should say that the movie respects the intelligence of children instead of pandering to it. Intellectually, Jonze asks his audience not to settle for cheap gags and lowbrow humor; anyone seeking a smorgasbord of mere visual delights and an infusion of potty jokes will be sorely let down. That's why this is such great work, and that's why it will last. Screenwriter Dave Eggers takes the high road by not stuffing his adaptation with a lot of dialogue. The book was sparsely worded and so is the screenplay. That's a good thing. The imagination of the boy (really good work by Max Records in his first role) and the monsters and the monsters inside the boy speak all speak loudly enough. The metaphor of the book is famous and lovely for its simplicity. To pollute it with words would seem a sin.
Now, back to that word, boring. I'm not sure what these critics were expecting. No, it's not an action packed thrill-ride, but I want to know what could be more exciting than sailing to a world full of very large, dangerous, razor-clawed monsters, becoming their king and then demanding that the wild rumpus start!!! I guess people wanted all rumpus, all the time. Not happening. The movie flows at a pace that at times is as gentle as a soft pile of sleeping, snoring monsters (ah, but with the constant risk of being squished!). Max's world has, gasp, emotions in it--complex ones. Relationships too. And quiet times. Because you know what? Kids, even the wildest ones, have complex emotions. And relationships. And quiet times. Those silent moments, when Max is trying to sort things out, only make the rumpus more profound. The ties Max makes with the monsters are more protracted in the film, and the monsters themselves have names and personalities and a certain societal code that predates Max's discovery of their island, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, this journey isn't so imaginary after all. That's how I prefer to see it, anyway.
Nice additions abound. After all, it is a challenge to make a feature length movie from a book of ten sentences. Katherine Keener (is there a better actor alive?) excels as Max's mom, a role mirrored by the female monster lead, KW (voiced beautifully by Lauren Ambrose). The fort that Max and his monster subjects build is at once breathtaking and in perfect alignment with the source material. The actors chosen to portray the monsters are brilliant, none more than James Gandolfini as Carol--Max's best friend and most terrible adversary. Also, look for perhaps the greatest screen dismemberment of all time.
Of course as renowned as the story is Sendak's art. Monster costumes with GCI faces may sound like a recipe for ridiculousness, but this crew gets the look just right, from our hero, the forest and the creatures that have become so essential to our culture. The effects are seamless and subtle enough that we forget they are there.
Are there disappointments? Sure, but not many. Mostly I miss what to me was always the most magical moment in the book, when Max's bedroom transforms by degrees into a forest. I don't want to quibble, though, not with such a masterful take on a masterful book. Sendak himself has expressed his admiration of this adaptation. Who's a better judge?
Official McBone Rating: 4.5 McBones