If I could choose two words to describe Where the Wild Things Are, those two words would be "relentlessly depressing." Spike Jonze's vision is uncompromised, and he has created a serious movie for children, which is great. But what he hasn't done is made a movie as magical, powerful, and fun as Maurice Sendak's classic 1963 storybook. An attempt is made at capturing the anger, joy, disillusionment, and happiness that Sendak so strongly conveyed, but something's missing.
At first, though, you'd think differently. There are inventive scribbles over the company logos, and as Max (Max Records) terrorizes the family dog, gets hurt in a snowball fight, and yearns for the attention of his mother (Catherine Keener), there's real emotion involved. This one section alone has several moments that'll put your tear ducts to work. Jonze begins an insightful character study of one lonely, angry, attention-starved little boy, and it prepared me for one of the best movies of the year.
Unfortunately, he doesn't follow through. Max feels threatened by his mom's boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), so he gets up on the kitchen table and demands that she feed him. When she yells at him to get down, he bites her. Everybody freaks out, prompting Max to run off and sail to an imaginary world in which giant monsters roam. At first, Max is scared. Some sort of rift has developed between the monsters, and Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) has started destroying all of their homes. But when Max convinces them he can "keep the sadness out," they declare him king. His first order of business? "Let the wild rumpus start!"
This is when the movie lost me. The monsters are, to be sure, stunningly made. Their bodies are suits crafted by the Jim Henson Creature Workshop, and their faces are digitally rendered. Taken in combination, this creates the splendid effect that what you're seeing are real, living, breathing wild things. It's too bad that they're so poorly written. The book is so short that we never get to know the monsters, and all we get to see is the wild rumpus. If the monsters in the book are anything like the monsters in Jonze's and Dave Eggers' screenplay, then that's probably for the best.
Each monster, of course, is an aspect of Max or the world around him. There's Carol, who feels frustrated and betrayed, and goes around doing very bad things. There's Alexander (Paul Dano), the short little monster who no one ever pays attention to. KW (Lauren Ambrose, who looks so much like KW in both the book and the movie that there couldn't have been another choice) is the caring, maternal figure who's recently left the other monsters and who Carol is struggling to bring back. And so on. In theory, it's brilliant, but as characters the monsters are largely uninteresting and incredibly mopey.
Which is why the movie is never fun. There are a lot of good things to say about Where the Wild Things Are: Lance Acord's photography is strange and gorgeous, effectively transplanting us to another land; the score by Karen O. and Carter Burwell is beautiful, melancholy, effervescent; and Max Records' performance is so raw and real that it would be unfair to lump him in with all the other child actors. But one thing I would never say is that the movie is enjoyable. Every time it leaps off into what seems like a fun adventure, something terrible happens that causes the monsters to sit around and talk about how they're never happy anymore and that bad things always happen.
That this might be a downer for kids raised on Madagascar and Ice Age isn't what worries me. It's been far too long since someone's made a real kid's movie, and we should welcome the kinds of mature efforts going on here and at Pixar. The problem is that the monsters are thinly drawn and frankly alienating. They're so bizarre that they're hard to get attached to, and oftentimes their reactions seem forced and random. You could chalk this up to the fact that it's all part of some messed-up kid's psyche, but me, I'm gonna say it's bad writing.
It's hard to believe that it's been seven years since Spike Jonze's Adaptation, the most honest glimpse at the creative process anyone's offered. It's one of the best movies ever made; it bends your mind, but it also works on your emotions, so by the end you're scratching your head and crying your eyes out. It is also important to point out that it had a great script, by the nearly peerless Charlie Kaufman. Being John Malkovich, Jonze's only other movie, was also written by Kaufman, and that was another movie that managed to boggle your mind and break your heart at the same time.
A great script is what Where the Wild Things Are is sorely lacking. It boggles your mind, with its surreal landscapes and weird characters (the less said about those owls, the better), and it maybe tugs at some emotions, but it falls short of breaking your heart. Jonze is a terrific filmmaker, yet the fact that he can't achieve in 94 minutes what Sendak did in ten sentences isn't surprising. After all, many full-blown novels can't stack up to its power. But it is disappointing.