Film Review: Where the Wild Things Are

Adaptation of Maurice Sendak's famous children's book expands on his plot while diminishing his effects.

Decades haven't dimmed the appeal of Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak's award-winning illustrated book. First published in 1963, it became for parents a sort of case study in acting out and throwing tantrums. Children, on the other hand, found comfort and reassurance in Sendak's magical landscapes and oversized but friendly demons. In adapting Where the Wild Things Are to the screen, writer and director Spike Jonze and his screenwriting collaborator Dave Eggers have re-created some of the book's most famous illustrations, but much of the charm of Sendak's work is gone.

Jonze and Eggers took considerable liberties with the book, adding both family and monster characters, devising a plot that includes a harried single mom and an unsympathetic older sister, and carefully explaining story incidents that Sendak deliberately left ambiguous. In the original, the young boy at the center of the story was fearless, even reckless. Named Max in the movie and played by Max Records, he now exhibits fear and remorse, and during his adventures must learn lessons about loyalty and obedience.

The production itself was difficult, with replaced cast members, faulty special effects, and missed release dates. In retrospect, this is a project that might have benefited from full animation, or the motion-capture process used in The Polar Express. Instead, Jonze offers generic Australian settings that are neither mysterious nor specific to the story. In them he places puppets built by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. While they mimic the look of Sendak's drawings to an uncanny degree, they are also too obviously stunt men inside stiff, ungainly costumes.

Which makes the vocal contributions by actors like Catherine O'Hara, Lauren Ambrose, and especially James Gandolfini even more impressive. Gandolfini offers an intriguing interpretation of Carol, a towering ego who is almost completely self-centered and oblivious to the damage he wreaks. Remarkably, the actor manages to make Carol engaging and frightening at the same time. As KW, Ambrose also finds a fascinating balance between affection and brutality.

On the negative side, Karen O's songs are both simplistic and heavy-handed, and Lance Acord's cinematography no better than functional. But the good intentions behind Where the Wild Things Are are obvious, and parents shouldn't be worried about unduly scaring their children by taking them to see it. If anything, the cautionary notes added by Jonze and Eggers—how being wild ultimately makes you lonely, for example—make this a firmly mainstream movie. Its stuffy, self-congratulatory tone probably won't bother tykes at all.