Where the Wild Things Are is a film about a lonely boy named Max (Max Records) and his imaginary adventure. When his sister’s teenage friends get a little too rough during a snowball fight one day, he throws a tantrum in her bedroom. His lively imagination and short temper get him into trouble later, when, wearing a wolf costume, he embarrasses his mother in front of her boyfriend. She yells at him, saying he is out of control, and he runs away.
Alone in the night, Max gets into a small sailboat in a pond near his house and sails away. After seemingly crossing a vast ocean, he arrives at an island populated by seven large, hairy, disheartened creatures. When they threaten to eat him, Max convinces them that he is a great king from a distant land with the ability to bring happiness to the wild clan. They make him their leader, and what follows is a tale of childhood frustration, friendship, and family.
Adapted from Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book of the same name, Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most stylish films of the year. Part-time music video director Spike Jonze (Adaptation) obviously had a clear vision for this movie, and his creativity oozes out of every frame. The film’s bleak color scheme and bare scenery lend it a more depressing tone than might be expected of a movie based on a children’s book, but it never seems inappropriately so. Its handheld camerawork makes you feel like you’re watching with the eyes of another child or monster, tottering around with the characters on screen.
The visual techniques wouldn’t be quite as effective, however, without the mesmerizing soundtrack by Jonze’s former girlfriend and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s lead singer, Karen O. With her backing band, The Kids, Karen O has crafted a group of songs that, as a whole, perfectly express the anger, fear, sadness, and joy that Max feels throughout the film. Since the music is sprinkled so sparsely throughout the movie, each song is quite striking the second it starts. They’re all so memorable in part because they’re all so noticeable.
Considering more than half the film’s characters are giant, hairy monsters, it’s a good thing its computer effects aren’t nearly as conspicuous as its soundtrack. The wild things, designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and approved by Sendak, come alive on screen in every way. Their huge, computer-generated faces are every bit as emotive as those of their human costars. From their feathers and fur ruffling in the wind to their beleaguered panting after a wild rumpus, the monsters all look and feel as gritty and natural as the dirt clods they throw at each other’s heads.
But despite its impressive technical achievements, Where the Wild Things Are’s story is severely lacking. It doesn’t help that the characters, all of whom speak and act like the little boy imagining them, take painfully long to express themselves to one another. As a result, their laboring dialogue only serves to irritate the audience and stall the plot.
Of course, it wouldn’t be necessary to stall the plot if there were any sort of plot to begin with. Being based on a 10-sentence children’s book, however, leaves the film’s 101 minutes boring and hollow. It seems Jonze uses setting changes in place of story progress, because the same things happen over and over, only in different places. First they fight, play, and whine in the forest at night. Then they play, fight, and whine in the sand during the day. The scenery may be consistently breathtaking, but it leaves the plot feeling noticeably cut and paste.
All the more frustrating is that, in the few rare instances in which the story approaches any semblance of development, it is quickly and mercilessly cut off by a character’s temper tantrum or hurt feelings. Fifteen minutes later, Max has everyone settled down enough for another unfortunately timed outburst. This happens time and time again without fail whenever anything substantial is about to occur. It’s far too plodding for a story in which nothing gets done and no one learns anything.
The Verdict: Where the Wild Things Are is a difficult film to judge. Its spectacular creature effects, stunning scenery, and organic camera work make it one of the most unique visual experiences of 2009. Throw in a tailor made film soundtrack that’s actually worth buying — a rarity these days — and you’d think it would all add up to one of the year’s best pictures.
Unfortunately, all these factors are let down by annoying characters in a slow story that refuses to pay off in the end. Some will argue that the film was purposefully made that way to appeal to children, but that’s too easy an excuse. Young kids may like looking at the pictures, and they may understand the characters’ words, but they certainly won’t read any further into it than that. Where the Wild Things Are may succeed in using childish language and actions to convey the complex emotional struggles of a stubborn little boy, but it loses the audience in the process. The final result is a movie that’s too complicated for children and too boring for adults.