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MOVIE REVIEW

'Where the Wild Things Are'

The adaptation of Maurice Sendak's book expands on the boorish Max -- to its detriment.

October 16, 2009|Kenneth Turan | FILM CRITIC

In Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," less -- 10 sentences, 37 pages, 338 words -- became more: a much-loved children's book that's sold more than 19 million copies worldwide, 10 million in the U.S.

In the new film version of Sendak's classic, more -- admired director Spike Jonze, smart co-screenwriter Dave Eggers, top-flight actors including Chris Cooper, James Gandolfini and Forest Whitaker, and a budget estimated at $80 million to $100 million -- has paradoxically become less: a precious, self-indulgent cinematic fable that not everyone is going to love.

The difficulty starts with how little the filmmakers had to work with. A feature-length narrative had to be teased out of a tale that fit nicely into an eight-minute animated short back in 1973. Left to their own devices in filling in the book's blanks, the filmmakers have come up with a misdirected pastiche that will please neither children nor their parents, something so empty and misconceived it makes you glad you're an adult.

To fill in those spaces, "Wild Things" chose to make explicit what was implicit, which means emphasizing and expanding the sullen and hostile brattiness of 9-year-old protagonist Max. Those qualities are of course present in the book -- it's one of the reasons it was controversial on publication -- but blowing them up this way in effect turns the film into a sanctification and celebration of some of the most childish aspects of being a child.

That's a shame because Jonze's idea that the beasts should be portrayed by people inside enormous costumes designed to duplicate the Sendak wild things by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, in effect hipster versions of NFL team mascots, is a fine one. Up to a point. For once these beings open their computer-generated mouths, a whole other set of problems arise.

Before we get to those creatures, however, a healthy chunk of time is given over to Max's back story. Played by young Max Records, he's introduced tearing around the house in his trademark wolf suit and trying to pounce on his beleaguered dog. No it's not an ad for Ritalin, it's business as usual for Max, who has a weakness for resorting to violence when things don't go his way and then going all pouty when the uncaring world gets violent in return.

This kind of behavior reaches its apex when Max's divorced mom (Catherine Keener) brings her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) home for dinner, which puts stressed-out Max so out of sorts he bites her on the shoulder. Hard.

Terrified at the mess he's gotten himself into, Max runs away and magically ends up on an island (the film was shot, its hard to say why, on the southern tip of Australia). Here he meets six wild things, each given a specific personality by the actor doing the voice.

More or less (actually less) in charge is Carol (Gandolfini), while KW (Lauren Ambrose) is on the elusive side. Judith (Catherine O'Hara) is the voice of doom and gloom while her pal Ira (Whitaker) just wants to get along. The bird-like Douglas (Chris Cooper) likes to get things done, while the goatish Alexander (Paul Dano) is as sensitive as a beast can be.

The problem with this cast of characters is not so much their personalities but the way screenwriters Jonze and Eggers have turned them into neurotic adults with dysfunctional relationships. To hear them talk among themselves is to feel like you've stumbled onto a group therapy session involving unfunny refugees from an alternate universe Woody Allen movie. It's not a good feeling.

Max does utter the book's signature line, "Let the wild rumpus start," but he spends a lot of his time not really being sure what he's doing.

When Jonze told the New York Times Magazine, "Everything we did, all the decisions we made, were to try to capture the feeling of what it is to be 9," he's telling the truth. Unfortunately, in this case, that's not a very interesting place to be.

Although Max does inspire the wild things to build a remarkable structure, his more lasting legacy is the chaos he causes with things like dirt-clod fights. He decides to leave the island not because, as in the book, he "wanted to be where someone loved him best of all," but because, as far as can be determined, he's caused some real damage and has no idea how to make things right.

In two of his previous films, "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," Jonze brought an appealingly offbeat sensibility to a pair of strong Charlie Kaufman scripts.

When faced as a director with the rudderless screenplay he co-wrote with Eggers, he's been powerless to energize it in any involving way. Sometimes you are better off with 10 sentences than tens of millions of dollars, and this is one of those times.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Where the Wild Things Are'

MPAA rating: PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: In general release

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