Ten sentences, 338 words: That is the entirety of Maurice Sendak's seminal 1963 children's book Where the Wild Things Are, about a little boy who disappears into a jungle of his imagination populated by monsters. For four decades, the slim tome ranked high among Hollywood's list of unfilmable books, mostly because there wasn't enough to the tale to fill out an entire feature film.
But director Spike Jonze, in collaboration with novelist Dave Eggers, has figured out a way. The question remains, though, whether the effort was worth the trouble. Where the Wild Things Are is sweet and melancholy and has moments of transporting magic, and the movie feels refreshingly hand-made and tactile, unlike so many contemporary fantasy films. But the film lacks the menace and danger of Sendak's book, along with the beautiful simplicity and delicated, understated portrait of a lonely, misunderstood boy.
His name is Max (played by the improbably named Max Records), and in the 15-minute sequence that opens the movie - ironically, the film's best sequence - we see him running around in a wolf suit, spinning wild stories for his attentive single mother (Catherine Keener), building ice fortresses on his front lawn, terrorizing his dog, having snowball fights with his neighbors. Jonze shoots the mischievous boy's antics with a handheld camera that mirrors his restless energy and hyperactive imagination.
By the time Max lashes out at his mom over the presence of her new boyfriend (a barely glimpsed Mark Ruffalo), runs away from home and sets sail aboard a rickety boat to a far-flung island, Where the Wild Things Are has effectively plunged you into the world of a 9-year-old. That is where the trouble begins.
Sendak served as a producer on the film and constantly encouraged Jonze to make the film his own and not worry about remaining faithful to the book. Upon Max's arrival to the island, we get our first glimpse of the nine-foot tall beasts that dwell there - giant, woolly monsters that vaguely resemble animals (a goat, a lion, a bull), the truly astonishing work of Jim Henson's Creature Shop - and the movie soars with promise. For a while, as Max first meets the impossibly expressive creatures (who contemplate eating him before making him their king) and the wild rumpus starts, Where the Wild Things Are feels exactly like the movie Jonze and Eggers set out to make: A transporting fable about what it feels like to be a child.
Thankfully, the filmmakers resist the temptation to give Sendak's slender tale any semblance of a plot, which must be the main reason Jonze and distributor Warner Bros. had so many creative differences during the tumultuous making of the movie, which was originally shot in 2006. But Jonze and Eggers err in their decision to give the monsters human-sized problems, like the shaggy Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), who still hasn't gotten over his breakup with the equally shaggy KW (Lauren Ambrose), or the pessimistic Judith (Catherine O'Hara), who always dwells on the negative aspect of every situation. Making Where the Wild Things Are without some degree of anthropomorphism would have been impossible: You have to provide Max with some semblance of characters to interact with, no matter how outlandish.
But the film's high points unfailingly center on the boy's joyous frolicking with his new pals, untethered to any kind of recognizable narrative construct (like when everybody jumps atop each other in a spirited round of roughhousing and then fall asleep in a pile). When Carol and KW bicker about an incident from their past that ended their relationship, your heart sinks at the direction the film is taking, not only because the monsters suddenly lose their otherworldliness, but also because the menace seeps out of them.
Despite a sequence in which Max is forced to hide inside the stomach of one of the creatures, the possibility the boy is in danger remains remote throughout, and the disappointingly sentimental ending doesn't help. Where the Wild Things Are is endlessly fascinating on a visual level, but it doesn't move you the way it should, and at times it borders on the dull. Unusual for Jonze and Eggers, the movie needs more whimsy and less sentiment. These wild things aren't wild enough.
Where the Wild Things Are opens in theaters Friday Oct. 16.