An adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, in which Max is sent to bed without supper and imagines sailing away to the land of Wild Things, where he is made king.

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I learn from my in-depth research, ie. looking it up on Wikipedia, that Maurice Sendak’s illustrated children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, has sold 18 million copies worldwide since it was first published in 1963. Besides being the basis for this new Spike Jonze film, it has also inspired a video game and an animated short film. I must remember to remonstrate with my parents for giving me a wantonly deprived childhood, since I’d never heard of the book until the feature film.

After seeing the movie I went straight to the bookshop next door and 'read" a copy (it’s mostly pictures) in the space of two minutes. Talk about not much here for feature filmmakers to chew on. Boy, Max, has argument with mother at dinner time and is sent to his room, where trees grow. He meets wild creatures, they have a good time. He gets home to find his dinner’s hot and ready. That’s it.

To make this into a feature the director turned to novelist Dave Eggers. Together they worked up a series of adventures in creature-land and gave the creatures distinct personalities before journeying to an exotic island far, far away to make the film (it was shot at Melbourne’s Century City studios and on location in rural and costal Victoria).

The results – charming, often fun and sometimes funny – are as imaginative as we’ve come to expect from the director, here working apart from his Being John Malkovich and Adaptation screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for the first time. But the film is also flawed and something of an oddity. It’s hard to identify the target audience, not only because the darkness of some scenes make it arguably unsuitable for some younger viewers (the audience I sat in had an average age of 20-30, with only a handful of kids), but because in-between spurts of energy it all seems a bit plodding.

For the most part eschewing digital imagery, Jonze imports the lo-fi aesthetic with which made his mark in the world of music videos. His shaggy creatures look like Muppet monsters or giant Yodas, which is hardly surprising given they were made by Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. Voicing them are talents as diverse as James Gandolfini (as the herd’s alpha male, ironically named Carol), Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose and Chris Cooper.

Max Records is terrific as his young fictional namesake, though the opening sequence, showing this young loner manically chasing his dog, nearly suffocating beneath snow, and losing his rag at his mother, approaches cliché thanks solely to the casting of mum and her boyfriend. Yes, I love Catherine Keener and Mark Ruffalo as much as the next person but how come they (along with about three other actors) seem the only ones these days allowed to be in indie-style films with any budget to speak of?

Max is portrayed as such a wild child that my first instinct was to assume that his problem, and it’s clearly serious, is autism. The condition however is never mentioned and it seems likely that Jones and Eggers only intended to make him an averagely disturbed child of a broken family.

In his adventures Max has one over-riding internal objective, to keep on persuading the creatures from eating him – their first instinct until he persuaded them he was a king from another land and they crowned him to be theirs. His major project is to inspire them to build a 'fortress", an object that slowly finds the shape of a perfect sphere made from branches. That it really has no purpose is the point – Max is making up this stuff on the run.

The trouble is, there’s no real external goal driving Max or the creatures, which means the story feels episodic and lacking in narrative drive. Yes, at times, I’m afraid, I was bored.

It’s OK, parents, you’re off the hook.

Details

PG
1 hour 41 min
In Cinemas 03 December 2009,
Thu, 04/01/2010 - 11

Genres