Where the Wild Things Are is a 339-word children's book that takes about five minutes to read. For decades it has captured the hearts and imaginations of children, while reminding crusty old adults exactly what it is like to be a kid themselves. I don't really have a childhood connection to the book, myself, but I've been excited about the movie adaptation ever since I first lay eyes on the amazing trailer, which was filled with magic and wonder and pathos that made me (and most people) very happy. I re-read the book at Barnes & Noble before heading to the IMAX theatre last night -- it once again tapped into the nine-year-old deep down inside (well, some might argue that in my case, it's not very deep at all... but that is neither here nor there) and I was fully prepared for the wild rumpus to start.
But... I'm sorry to say that as a 101-minute movie (the equivalent of reading the book about 20 times in a row), WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is bloated, plodding, painfully forced and stunningly boring at times. There are things to like here and there, but they are few and far between -- in the end, it just doesn't work.
I hesitate to put the full blame on Spike Jonze, a filmmaker in whose visions I have tremendous faith. I realize that the production was riddled with controversy and Warner Bros. hated his original cut and changes were made and who knows what else. Most likely, this was a project that was probably doomed to fail. That said, Jonze's talent for imagery and grasp of the bizarre are some of the few truly positive aspects of the film. He also successfully captures the tone of the book -- the opening scenes with Max and his wolf costume and his mother are particularly brilliant and, at first, seemed to justify the anticipation for this film. Max himself was pretty much perfect -- kind of a pain in the ass, but really, just a lonely kid with a vivid imagination trying to figure shit out.
But then Max embarks on his journey and discovers the Wild Things and from there we must endure a solid hour of superfluous padding that literally had me nodding off a couple of times. The exhilaration that Maurice Sendak accomplished in six wordless pages of rumpusing is never once matched. Sure, there's some tree-bashing, pile-sleeping, high-jumping, and fort-building... but it all happens very slowly and episodically and just feels forced.
Giving recognizable human voices to the Wild Things was a mistake, too. I was a little concerned about this from the get-go, but because the trailer was so great, I figured maybe it wouldn't matter. Well, it does. Visually, the Wild Things are cool -- I love that they decided to use people in costumes instead of full CGI -- and the digital eyes and mouths are seamless. But hearing the unmistakable voice of Tony Soprano is distracting (not to mention that it sounds like he was practically eating the microphone while recording the dialogue, but that is beside the point). Plus (and this may be the heart of the matter, which we should have known from the start), the whole point of the book is to stir a child's imagination -- and by giving distinct voices and personalities to the Wild Things, it strips the story of its very essence. Obviously, this had to be done in order to make a feature film -- and, well, therein lies your problem.
What I'm saying is, the movie is a failure that -- surprise, surprise -- never should have happened in the first place. Not the first time this has happened to a beloved story-turned-film, nor will it be the last -- but based on the level of anticipation that existed for this film, I have to consider it one of the bigger letdowns in recent memory. Damn shame. Certainly doesn't tarnish the book in any way, though... so hopefully future generations of children will continue to read it while the film collects dust in the $1.99 bins at Best Buy.
AFTERTHOUGHT: I'm sure the movie is raking in tons of cash as we speak and will be a huge financial success. Does this mean we can expect more adaptations of children's books in the near future? Probably. My #1 pick: CAPS FOR SALE, directed by David Cronenberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the Peddler! "TSZ, TSZ, TSZ," indeed!