A classic by all accounts, and an unimprovable symbiosis of content and form, Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book Where the Wild Things Are ranks high among “Oh no they didn’t” fodder for movie adaptation. But Dave Eggers co-writing the film with director Spike Jonze makes a difference. That seems like reason enough to revisit Sendak’s ten indelibly illustrated sentences about a naughty kid on a tantrum trip to a monster-populated foreign land.
Sendak starts his young mischief-maker Max in a home-base bedroom whose atmosphere seems more restive than rest-inducing — like Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles, with its theatrical perspective uneasily encouraging the expectation of enchantment. Much magic comes from seeing that space dissolved into a forest and later restored, post-tantrum, for an affecting yet unsentimental homecoming. Who in the world could cinematize that, we asked ourselves, if not Eggers and Jonze?
Oh no. They didn’t. Instead they made the place their own, filling the boy’s room and indeed the whole film with vaguely ingratiating signifiers of DIY creative intensity. None of Max’s toys or attitudes appear to be mass-produced, and eventually he comes to inhabit not a Sendak tableau or even a Van Gogh but something like an enormous communal Andy Goldsworthy earthwork. The aesthetic priorities are easy to appreciate, but they exacerbate an attenuating nostalgia. To properly showcase some wonderfully Muppety costumes from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Where the Wild Things Are subordinates CGI effects to the retro-righteous aura of handicraft and lo-fi photorealism: Production designer K.K. Barrett and cinematographer Lance Acord supply an array of dusky hues familiar from the downbeat early-’70s pop culture into which Eggers and Jonze were born. It is somehow intrusively pretty.
A thrasher in his early years and a Jackass creator later on, Jonze brings rambunctious agility to the proceedings, with Eggers providing characteristic tenderness and rumination on the fragility of companionship. Many feelings are expressed through leaping and smashing, and the denominator of social interaction is the pile-on, both cozy and smothering.
The Wild Things’ community is unharmonious and variously melancholic. Upon making Max their king, one asks, “Will you keep out all the sadness?” And if that seems like a strange thing for a boy’s projected id to say back to him, maybe it’s because these versions of the beasts are meant to be understood as cautionary embodiments of untreated psychic wounds and stunted emotional growth. This same interrogator also shares Max’s anxiety of lost teeth, taking up an adroit motif about fear of life’s funny-gross transitions (into adulthood, into death). Maybe the movie really is about its adapters’ own struggles with holding on to what Sendak’s book has meant to them.
Well stocked with famous adult actors giving fine performances, Where the Wild Things Are properly belongs to the comprehending and mercifully un-kid-actor-like newcomer Max Records, who nails the openhearted petulance that the part of Max requires. Still, and not surprisingly, the film can’t transcend its basic proportions problem: With the framework so enlarged, the feelings seem to shrink. It stresses soulfulness without always exuding it, and proves again that Sendak already gave his Max and the Wild Things all the characterization they need. What’s more, the notion to remain steadfastly un-Disneyfied soon enough seems like unwillingness to admit that a soundtrack full of Karen O really is just another form of schmaltz. Sendak’s book already has been turned into opera and ballet. Might this new adaptation have worked better as the music video it sometimes wants to be?