In “Where the Wild Things Are,” an energetic kid (Max Records) tries to create a monumental work of imagination that turns out to be a mess. Was he also in charge of the movie?
If not, director Spike Jonze (“Adaptation”) and writer Dave Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) have some explaining to do. Collaborating on this adaptation of the 1963 award-winning children's book by Maurice Sendak, they've jettisoned everything interesting about the original to create a kids' movie that turns out to be far too weird for its own good. Ignoring the question of whether it's advisable or even possible to transform Sendak's highly ambiguous picture poem into a mainstream Hollywood production, the result is a work that somehow manages to alternate between original and trite, insightful and psychotic.
In its one unequivocal conformity with the book, the movie opens with Max (Records), a little boy in animal pajamas tearing through the house. He is subsequently sent to bed without supper, and this is where book and movie diverge. In the book Max's room turns into a forest where he sets sail to the island of the wild things. He proclaims himself king and forces them into a “rumpus,” before growing bored with them and returning home. There's a lot more story to be gleaned from those still pictures and words, but that's about all there is to the plot. Obviously a full-length film is going to need a little more.
In the movie, Max has some protracted scenes with his mom (Catherine Keener), and, feeling neglected by her attention toward a boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), runs away, where he spies a boat and sails to an island inhabited by huge, fuzzy creatures who love causing a ruckus just like he does. Max joins in, convinces them he's a king so they won't eat him, and promises to protect them by building a gigantic fortress they can all call home. This last part is especially important to Carol (James Gandolfini), the biggest of the wild things, who's upset about KW (Lauren Ambrose), a female wild thing he has a wild thing for.
Jonze's vision of the wild things, with bulbous physiques (by Jim Henson's company), are faithful to the book, as is Max's costume, but only in appearance. The main difference: These new wild things are pathological yappers, with the help of a few well-known actors such as Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and Paul Dano. Jonze and Eggers have set out to refashion Sendak into a contemporary fairy tale, a rollicking kiddie flick with typical moral questions regarding relationships, caffeinated with jittery post-ironic humor and set to a propulsive indie-rock soundtrack (provided in part by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs).
While these ingredients sound individually appealing, there is an unsavory element in their midst. The wild things, extensions of Max, are crazy. Jonze and Eggers have nailed the random association inherent in a child's imagination, which is fun to listen to when children do it. When the adult voices chime in the same way it only reminds you of an unfortunate person mumbling outside the grocery store about George Washington. Despite some nice photography and great tunes, this bewildering factor darkens the picture and gradually grates the nerves.
For a little while, it's easy to give “Wild Things” the benefit of the doubt that it will play well with people of Max's stature. But the island becomes desolate, its inhabitants dead-eyed — far more depressing than Max was at home, especially when factions for and against him split up, stop talking and attack each other. Think Henson by way of Bergman, though it's hard to imagine even Scandinavian youngsters being charmed. A few minutes of overgrown Muppets talking nonsense is creepy. An hour is maddening.
A tepid ending, about Max needing his mom, doesn't fit the profile of the movie or its makers. There isn't an ounce of sentiment in the original, a fact wholeheartedly ignored by choice or accident by the adapting duo, and by the end it feels as if they realized their mistakes and gave up. The result has far too much in common with the wild things — lots of energy with little to show for it but chaos. 94 min. (PG) HHIII