Getting into the mind of a 12-year-old boy is no easy task. Crafting that internal world into a film is even more difficult…I would imagine. Maurice Sendak did it effectively enough in his book, Where the Wild Things Are, a fantastic tale untainted by the ravages of internal or external dialogue. The book’s ten or so sentences probably helped make it my favorite book to “read” as a child. The danger of watching the film adaptation of the book is comparison. It has been a while since I re-read the book, so I felt somewhat fresh in watching Spike Jonze‘s film recently. It’s safe to say that the film fails first as a film, and then, inevitably, as an adaptation.
By now, everyone should be familiar with the story of Sendak’s book. Max throws a fit and is sent to bed without supper where he promptly envisions a land of Wild Things, large, hairy animal-monster hybrids, with whom he undertakes a wild rumpus. In Jonze’s film, Max (Max Records) still throws a fit, embarrassing his mother (Catherine Keener) in front of her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo). After he bites her, he storms out of the house and runs into the world of the Wild Things. Here we begin to long for Sendak’s silence. In Jonze’s film, the Wild Things constantly murmur to one another or themselves about the necessity of a leader. They are either fearful, self-loathing, or socially inept.
The necessary change from picture book to film is a notable challenge, but the result is an extreme bore. While the Wild Things’ dialogue represents the thought processes and emotional development of a young child, it makes the film an extreme bore, taking away from any sense of fun that the rumpus attempts to imbue in the film. Moreover, the rumpus itself is wildly violent, with Max escaping Wile E. Coyote-style from any permanent bodily harm. Woe to parents who have to endure playdates among children who have seen this rumpus…hopefully they won’t try to rip each other’s arms off! As a result, the film has no, or very little, air of “carefreeness” about it that often characterizes much of childhood. In the real world, Max does not endure significant trauma that might lead to the frequently darker imagination that plays out on the screen.
The highpoint of Where the Wild Things Are is definitely the art design and the Wild Things themselves. The costumes are simply amazing and demand appreciation for the actors who endured, no doubt, oppressive conditions and the technicians who operated the faces. The choice of voice acting for the Wild Things is especially interesting with performances by James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, and Catherine O’Hara. Many of the sets, especially their fort under construction, are quite impressive.
At the end of the day (and Max’s dream), perhaps Where the Wild Things Are might persuade us to take (our) children more seriously. However, most of us already know that children aren’t dumb, but we also know that many of them certainly have a better imagination than this.