4 stars, (PG)
Where the Wild Things Are is a poetic, visually rich film about an upset little boy who takes refuge in a magical place, with distinctive performances, amusing moments and numerous lively scenes. Overall, though, the production has a melancholy feel. Nothing wrong with that - sometimes it's comforting to wrap yourself in a melancholy book, movie or piece of music. It's like a sweet-sad blanket. Warm, comforting. You have to be careful not to overindulge, however, as anyone who has ever suffered from Depression can tell you. It's easy to get lost in there.
If you're a parent trying to determine whether or not the movie is appropriate for your children, you won't get much help here. I'm not very good at predicting what little ones will like. What matters more is whether you'll like it, because despite the fact that the film is based on a children's book, Spike Jonze's (Being John Malkovich) adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved 1963 story is an intimate, personal work that should easily engage adults.
Unless you get bored and annoyed. After the sneak preview, I heard complaints from a couple of people that the film was slow in spots, that the screenwriters had taken the slight story - the book is only 339 words long, a little over half the length of this essay - and over-padded it. Too many repetitive scenes, too many extended smiles, frowns and meaningful glances.
I didn't get that. For me, the film takes you back to childhood and allows you to re-experience being young from a presumably more grown-up perspective. The repetitive scenes are there because children at play are often repetitive. The extended smiles, frowns and meaningful glances lay out the emotional reactions and politics of childhood. Jonze and co-screenplay writer Dave Eggers (with involvement from co-producer Sendak, I assume) address primal stuff - loneliness, fear, anger, the realization that everything is probably finite, including the sun - including you. I remembered obsessing over all that when I was little, and taking refuge in fantasy and play.
Don't get me wrong, the movie isn't some unrelentingly gloomy think piece. Jonze's film is a treat to behold. Using hand-held cameras, he creates a strong sense of immediacy and intimacy as you accompany young Max (Max Records) on his adventure. The film was mostly shot on and near the rocky coast of Australia and looks gorgeous. The large creatures Max meets closely resemble the illustrations in the book and appear wonderfully low-tech and as natural as anything else in the movie. Not once did I think about the costumes or special effects behind the creatures - I just accepted them.
The score mixes orchestral music with lots of alt-rock-meets-summer-camp-songs. It works. As for the cast, young Max Records is excellent, as is Catherine Keener as his mother. The actors providing the voices of the surprisingly well-developed creatures are just as good. I'll list their names in a second, but I suggest you don't read them until after you've seen the movie - all the better to enjoy the fantasy that way. That said, the creatures are played by James Gandolfini (Carol), Forest Whitaker (Ira), Lauren Ambrose (KW), Chris Cooper (Douglas), Paul Dano (Alexander) and Catherine O'Hara (Judith).
To best enjoy Where the Wild Things Are I suggest you prepare in advance to drink in the movie on its own terms and at its own pace. It's an odd bird - no surprise coming from Spike Jonze - but a rewarding one.