Maurice Sendak's 1963 picture book Where the Wild Things Are is made searing by its omissions. We learn very little about Max, the young boy in the wolf suit, except that he has an anger problem. The book's storytelling is so simple and iconic that it verges on modern mythmaking, and that - along with Sendak's memorable illustrations - must be why the book is captivating to the tune of 19 million copies sold.
Like any good myth, Where the Wild Things Are has lessons to teach, but also ambiguities. To his credit, director Spike Jonze retains ambiguities in his film version, which he wrote with Gen-X literary icon Dave Eggers. But given the book's austerity, the film has quite a few gaps to fill, even at a brief hour and 34 minutes.
Max (Max Records) is a child of divorce, we learn in the opening scenes. His teenage sister (Pepita Emmerichs) gabs on the phone. His busy mom (Catherine Keener) brings work home from the office, cooks frozen food for dinner and canoodles on the couch with her boyfriend. In a frightening and effective scene, Max, in his wolf costume (which looks exactly right), throws a tantrum, storms into the night and sails to where the wild things are.
Max's cluttered home life is actually pretty interesting. I found it more interesting than his adventures where the wild things are. But the clutter doesn't serve Sendak's story all that well, and that goes doubly for the scenes with the wild things, which make up the bulk of the movie.
Let it be said, the fantasy sequences are beautifully designed. The puppetry and effects do great justice to Sendak's drawings - these wild things are marvelously emotive with their bodies, and especially their eyes. The sets are wondrous. It all looks very complicated and expensive, and that may be the problem. Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are reminds me of Robert Altman's 1980 film Popeye. Altman took a beloved children's franchise, added a costly set and a big cast and rolled the cameras. The actors riffed in that Altman way, and what emerged was - an attractively designed muddle. I went to a multiplex screening at age 9 and left disappointed.
Jonze has taken similar elements and likewise created a muddle. Funny lines emerge in the wild things' ensemble scenes, but unlike the archetypal book, these scenes have no heft, mythic or otherwise. Part of the problem is the voice performances by the likes of James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara and Forest Whitaker. I'm jarred by their shticky, slangy, adolescent squabbling. Another problem is that the events in the fantasy sequences (Max and the wild things play, sleep, build a fort) follow only dream logic, so in terms of storytelling, there's too little drama, too little tension.
True, there are interesting echoes of Max's real world in the wild things' scenes. To take one: In anger, Max trashes his sister's room; later the wild thing Carol (Gandolfini) smashes the wild things' houses. These elements could be discussed and analyzed, perhaps at a McSweeney's event. But they don't add up to enough movie.