When rumors surfaced that Maurice Sendak’s 1963 picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, was slated for the big screen, I (like some other people) wondered: How do you stretch a ten-minute bedtime story into a two-hour movie?
Robert Zemeckis confronted that question in 2004, with his adaptation of The Polar Express, another children’s story famed for its sparse sentences and Caldecott-winning illustrations. He fattened the narrative with show tunes, adventure subplots, innovative CGI, and new characters, mostly voiced by Tom Hanks, and the result was a family film that mimicked the book in appearance but diverged from it thematically.
Spike Jonze and his co-writer, the multi-talented Dave Eggers, add to and complicate the Wild Things story in startlingly different ways. For one, there are no A-list actors’ names printed in gilded yellow letters above the movie’s title. I don’t mean to say the actors aren’t A-list material: James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Forrest Whittaker and Catherine O'Hara are hardly unknowns. But if you don't recognize their voices during the movie, you’ll have to lift your feet for the popcorn-sweepers and scrutinize the credits for the actors’ names. And contrary to typical Hollywood fashion, child actor Max Records is rightfully credited first.
A second difference is the soundtrack. No, Max and the monsters don’t break into song and dance. If this were an auteur-less Disney movie, you know it would feature an I-Just-Can’t-Wait-To-Be-King-style number when Max demands the “wild rumpus” commence. Jonze hands the musical reins over to undervalued composer Carter Burwell and Karen O. The music, which exists on a plane somewhere between catchy and harrowing, may be one of the reasons Stephanie Zacharek over at Salon.com characterizes the film as an exercise in “shoe-gazing”.
But actors and soundtrack aside, let’s talk about the narrative. How do Jonze and Eggers thicken Sendak’s ten-sentence book into a hundred minutes of filmstrip?