Spike Jonze’s big screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are feels, well, a lot like a picture book, relying on beautiful images and an uncomplicated narrative and echoing familiar themes of forgiveness, family and the value of a good home.
Padding out the story of an impish child who visits a magical world of weird looking creatures to a running time of 101 minutes necessitated a significant amount of expansion (the book is just 10 sentences long) but the big surprise is that not a great deal has been added to the source material. Instead of developing an extensive plotline Jonze opts to add new proverbial pages to the book: simple things like slumber parties, cubby houses and play fighting extending the narrative.
Max (Max Records) is a boisterous young’un who one fateful eve has a barney with his mum. He stands on the kitchen bench demanding to be fed, then bites her on the shoulder and — as you do — runs away and sails to a distant land populated by weird massive beasts. A few of them — particularly Carol (voiced authoritatively by James Gandolfini) — look like H.R. Pufnstuf crossed with Yogi Bear. At first the beasts want to eat Max but Max talks his way out, assuring them he has special powers. Max becomes king and his first line of business is to echo the book’s catch-cry: “let the wild rumpus begin!”
Fun and frivolity ensue but soon Max learns that life is complicated even in this apparent utopia. Factions exist within the wild things society; there are histories and grievances and grudges, and clashing personalities jar the dynamic between them as new world loses its shine.
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Shot, designed and edited with consummate style, the film’s visual structure is extraordinary: a strange, amorous and bewitching mixture of puppets and CGI set in front of vast lens-buckling backgrounds. Most of the film takes place in a spirited faraway land, a sort of Honalee, a place clearly capable of existing only within the prisms of a child’s imagination. Instead of stuffing the frame with detail –a trap a lot of kids movies fall into, particularly in animation – Jonze understands the value of restraint; of basic ideas translated into beautiful pictures.
Where the Wild Things Are has a majestic openness, with lots of long and mid shots soaking in the rustic Australian terrain (most it was shot in Victoria). The beasts look glorious: lifelike, otherworldly, real enough to touch but enhanced with a subtle CGI sheen. The atmospheric properties of Where the Wild Things Are are strong enough to compensate for a slightly languid storyline.
With a more pronounced plot the film, however, would inevitably grow more estranged from the simple elegance of the source material. That’s a catch 22 that could have been negotiated better by Jonze, who tapers over the lack of plot by focusing almost solely on Max’s relationships with the wild things. However Where the Wild Things Are more than hangs together as an enriching experience, partly because it takes place in that cuddly childlike world, imaginative and nonsensical, where things don’t need to be complicated and simple joys can become soul-nourishing profundities.
Where the Wild Things Are’s Australian theatrical release date: December 3, 2009.