"Where the Wild Things Are," the book, is just 339 words long. But in turning it into "Where the Wild Things Are," the movie, director Spike Jonze has expanded the basic story with a breathtaking visual scheme and stirring emotional impact.
It's a gorgeous film: This may sound contradictory, but it's intricate and rough-hewn at the same time, dreamlike and earthy. What keeps it from reaching complete excellence is the thinness of the script, which Jonze co-wrote with Dave Eggers.
The beloved and award-winning children's book, which Maurice Sendak wrote and illustrated 45 years ago, still holds up beautifully today because it shows keen insight into the conflicted nature of kids — the delight and the frustration that can often co-exist.
Jonze gets that, too. There's always been an inventiveness to his films, a childlike playfulness even amid some of the darker material within "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." With its warm lighting and detailed production design, "Where the Wild Things Are" remains lovingly faithful to the look and spirit of the book but functions as its own entity.
But Jonze obviously understands the feelings of fear and insecurity — and the inability to articulate them — that the wild things of "Wild Things" represent, and he's taken the bold step of showing the creatures not through animation but rather by using actual people in giant, furry costumes. The monsters were voiced by an all-star cast and enhanced through digital effects to make the facial features seem more lifelike.
And because talented character actors like James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara and Paul Dano had the benefit of voicing their roles on the same stage at the same time — rather than recording their parts independently of each other, which is standard practice — their interplay feels more organic.
At their center is Max, played by 12-year-old Max Records, a lonely, misunderstood kid who runs off one day to the magical land where the wild things are and becomes their king. Records is no self-conscious, precocious child actor: He makes Max feel real and relatable, full of joy and rage like any little boy. (Catherine Keener has some lovely, subtle moments at the film's start as Max's struggling single mom, who inadvertently neglects him when he needs attention the most.)
Because so much is right about the look and feel of "Where the Wild Things Are," you wish there were more to the screenplay. Despite many individual moments of great energy, the overall narrative momentum is seriously lacking, and you walk out of the film realizing that not a whole lot happens. There's the wild rumpus, of course — lots of running and jumping through the forest, leaping and wrestling and collapsing in a giddy, exhausted heap. (The indie-rock score from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Carter Burwell adds to the film's sense of melancholy.)
Mainly, though, the wild things (who have names like Carol, Judith, Douglas and Ira) bicker among themselves about whether to make Max their king, and the best way to build a fort. Many amusing lines do emerge, though — and perhaps a potentially frightening moment or two for little kids.
"Where the Wild Things Are" is certainly as suitable for children as the book that inspired it, but it'll probably roar even more loudly to adults in the audience who aren't ashamed to get a little nostalgic about their own childhoods.