I didn’t want to like this movie; I wanted to love it. I was sure that the five-year-old boy in me, biting his tongue whenever he’s forced to watch Gossip Girl or sit through another pseudo-intellectual foreign film, had been waiting for this.
If there was anyone who could make this work, anyone in the world capable of bridging that apparent gap between myself and that five-year-old boy, it had to be Spike Jonze. Right? Jonze, whose precise genius and vision are on full display in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, was going to transform Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are into a cinematic masterpiece that would unite a grown-up sensibility with the optimistic simplicity of our youth. Jonze, who, as the creator and writer of Jackass, seems to have engaged in the exploration of auteurship as much as he has in the art of immaturity and mischief, was poised to bring this film to the Promised Land. Plus it was co-written by Dave Eggers, author of Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius!? It all seemed too perfect. So . . . what went wrong? Why did I leave the theater convincing myself that I “just didn’t get it”? Why does the whole of Wild Things seem to fail epically at equaling the sum of its parts?
Fifteen minutes in I thought I was sold. The initial use of the handheld and quick, seamless edits to capture Max’s tenuous grasp on the adult world imbues the opening with a truthfulness that lets pretend-play explore the seesaw between fascination and doldrums. Jonze was gearing up another portrayal of the self-conscious, childlike wonder that made me so hopeful. And once Max runs away from home, escaping to a land fashioned and governed by his imagination, I was just about ready to give Jonze my firstborn.
Shot in Australia, the visual aesthetics keep to earthy tones that ground the film in the real and the really fantastical. And the Things! The Things, perfectly reminiscent of Sendak’s original illustrations, are remarkably tangible: the creatures are entirely live-action (suits were designed by Jim Henson’s company, and only the faces were modified by CGI). Breathtaking is an understatement. As projections of Max’s consciousness, the monsters realize the overly rationalistic energy and emotional volatility that overwhelm and define the nine-year-old boy’s experience with not having the means to express or explicate his confusion and frustration with life.
But then . . . something just wasn’t right. Sendak’s original story was only 10 sentences long. Despite its simplicity, the book contained an emotional power and resonance that has made it a classic. I guess it only makes sense that the flaws of Wild Things can then be easily located in the attempted adaptation written by Jonze and Eggers. It’s all wrong. It’s just too alternative, too twee. In their search to preserve the simplicity of Sendak’s 10 sentences, Jonze and Eggers fall into the realm of pretension and pseudo-intelligence. The high abstraction of their dialogue is â€“ at its best â€“ distracting, and reminds the audience of the layers of artifice at work â€“ most notably the affectations of its authors. After Carol, one of the monsters voiced by James Gandolfini, asks Max if he can “Keep all the sad out,” I knew it was over.
Written in what felt like undisciplined prose-poetry, the monsters engage in vague ideological discussions that quickly turn manic-depressive. And though they are effectively individualized, their personalities are overwhelmed by neuroticism and moodiness. Given their penchant for temper tantrums and misbehavior, the raw destructive power of their physicality then infuses their presence in the film (and interactions with Max) with a pervading sense of instability and danger.
While Jonze’s aesthetic vision verges on perfection, the film itself is too structurally bare and tonally maudlin to be poignant. Arrested in the intellectual and cathectic annals of Max’s imagination, the design of Where the Wild Things Are â€“ to the extent that it mirrors the architecture of Max’s imagination â€“ is a meager offering to the voracious appetite of the neglected child.