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Monday, November 16th, 2009

Time Event
10:41a
Where the Maladjusted Things Are
Sunday night the 15th, we went to the Times Cinema to catch up with
"Where the Wild Things Are," the Spike Jonze adaptation of the famous
picture book by Maurice Sendak. We were both very unhappy with it. Since
Sendak was involved with the production, it may be a bit much to say it
was a desecration, but I haven't yet decided whether I'm totally creeped
out by it, or just profoundly disappointed.

It starts out with promise. Max (Max Records) is a very real if
sometimes turbulent little boy, who is making up for a lack of friends
his own age, being ignored by his teen-aged sister, and trying to get
some of his single mother's attention away from work and boyfriends, by
having an active fantasy life. His personal soundtrack is punctuated
with shrieks and "Indian" war whoops. After a family meltdown, he runs
off into the night and finds the boat that carries him to the Island of
the Wild Things.

The island is a classical Neverland with seashore, cliffs, old-growth
forest, sandy desert, and rocky crags. The Wild Things LOOK marvelous,
as much like Sendak's drawings as could be realized in live action,
composed of giant Muppet suits by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, with
facial animation added by CGI. The disappointment set in when they
started to talk.

See, the Wild Things aren't very wild. It's more like being on the
Island of the Things With No Social Skills. The island is the corner of
the schoolyard where all the big but clumsy and unpopular adolescents
lurk at lunchtime and try to build their own little dysfunctional
society. Even the names of the creatures, Carol, K.W., Alexander,
Judith, Ira, and Douglas, sound more like the denizens of a typical
middle school than monsters. (The Bull, who neither speaks nor is spoken
to until briefly near the end, doesn't even get a name, which I thought
was a bit shabby--.)

As Max arrives, having survived his voyage with the kind of fortitude
boys would like to think they have, he finds Carol (voice by James
Gandolfini) destroying the Things' huts in a tantrum of frustration at
the undefined "wrongness" of it. Max joins in enthusiastically, winning
Carol's approval, but is greeted with suspicion by the others who
threaten to eat him. Max fascinates them with his imaginative story of
having defeated "Vikings" with his magical powers and becoming their
king. When the possibility of becoming King of the Wild Things is
raised, Max immediately sets himself up for failure by promising the
Things what they want to hear: that he will build a "perfect fortress"
with a "shield against sadness" and "a place where only the things you
want to have happen, would happen."

Unlikely as these things are, child Max is even less capable of dealing
with the adolescent "issues" the monsters have: Carol's unrequited
longing for order and grandeur, as well as his crush on K.W. (Lauren
Ambrose); K.W.'s desire for independence; the often nasty
passive-aggression presented by Judith (Catherine O'Hara); and the whiny
low-self-esteem presented by Alexander (Paul Dano). Neither Woody Allen
nor Bob Balaban have screenwriting credits for this film, but I wouldn't
have been at all surprised to find them here.

I totally blame Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers for this. There's
really too much attempt to extend the story and to make it interesting
to adults. I don't know if there is supposed to be some psycho-social
thing going on where the creatures represent emotional storms lurking
ahead as Max grows up or not, but it really doesn't work. Instead of
choosing to go home because he's vented his energy among the joyous
savagery of the Wild Things and now wants the comforts of home, Max's
departure from the island is as a defeated and deposed king going into
exile, which makes the movie, as Georgie put it, "a downer." Bleah.

I see from IMDB that there was an animated version made in 1973 (redone
in 1988). I might look that up to see if it takes the disappointment
away.

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