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Well-crafted Wild Things relentlessly bleak
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Well-crafted Wild Things relentlessly bleak

by Nick Ardizzone - SGN Staff Writer

Where the Wild Things Are
Opening October 16


The good news came like the planets aligning: Acclaimed director Spike Jonze was making a film version of Maurice Sendak's beloved picture book Where the Wild Things Are, with screenplay by the enormously talented Dave Eggers. This Friday, the movie will be released to the throngs who are filled with warm nostalgia at the sight of Max in his wolf suit.

The film version of Where the Wild Things Are forgivably smudges a few details, but its most unexpected change is in the tone of the story; where the book was a boy's escape into fantasy, the movie smothers the spark of childhood the book celebrated, instead presenting an unexpectedly cold glimpse of defeated creatures existing in an empty world.

When the mischievous Max (a pitch-perfect Max Records) runs away from home and arrives on an island, he is greeted by a pack of Muppety monsters who crown him their king. "Let the wild rumpus start!" Max soon proclaims, and the monsters tumble like a pack of puppies, as rough and scrappy as Max himself. They perform wire-fu leaps and dropkick each other in the head. I winced when a monster crashed face-first into a jagged stone outcropping, but the cartoony violence fits perfectly into the imagination of a young boy.

Max bonds most closely with the monster who mirrors him, the runny-nosed beast inexplicably named Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini). Carol is taking the departure of a fellow monster very hard, just as Max is struggling with his older sister abandoning him in the real world. Also present among the monsters are clear representations of Max's mother and her boyfriend, adding some bizarre Freudian undertones to Max's quest to save the creatures from the crushing loneliness of their dying world.

Far removed from the lush jungles of Sendak's book, the trees in the monsters' autumnal forest are dry and dying. Carol worries about the featureless desert as it spreads across the land. Even the fort Max and the monsters build is a sterile bower of bleached wood and rocks.

The stark beauty of the film is most apparent in the scenery, but the tone of the movie downshifts abruptly whenever the montages end and Max is left with the brooding, bickering populace of the island. There is nothing wild about the moping monsters, who pitifully ask if Max is there to "keep the sadness away." Despite their ferocious appearance, the monsters are so sullen and dejected they would make Eeyore roll his eyes.

Max entered this world to escape the changing social mores that accompany his transition from childhood to young adulthood. What sense does it make, then, to have him managing a menagerie of moody, selfish monsters? They lash out with sarcastic, passive-aggressive snark, but are so thin-skinned that nearly every scene ends in pouting and hurt feelings. The monsters spew jealousy, guilt and regret, as if they leapt from Pandora's box rather than the pages of a children's book.

The movie is frustrating because it creates a world where Max can supposedly let his wild side prowl uninhibited, but Jonze then adds a jarring melancholy that sours the experience. In one scene, the malcontent monsters demand to see a show of Max's mystical powers. He slowly stands, and with all the regal seriousness he can muster, he solemnly begins to do the robot.

The theater bursts out in laughter, but the scene does not end. The monsters stare at Max with a mixture of disappointment and disgust. The audience's laughter dies as the monsters sigh, shake their heads, and lumber slowly away, muttering snidely to each other. Max is left alone in the dark forest. Ash falls from the night sky like snow.

This is a well-crafted film, an absolute credit to Jonze and Eggers. They succeeded in creating a movie that is relentlessly sad and bleak, and anyone who says children's movies should be universally uplifting is denying the objective truth of childhood. It is puzzling, however, why Jonze chose to stage this dystopian exploration as a remake of a book that contains none of these qualities. It's as if he filmed a sincere treatise about the exploitation of sweatshop workers and called it Green Eggs and Ham.

Where the Wild Things Are closes with the only happy ending possible as Max escapes from the crushing misery of the island. The last time the monsters are seen, they are howling on a grey beach, heartbroken, as Max abandons them to their dying world. Max's journey to recapture the wildness of childhood ended in a land of loss and hopelessness, a fantasy world with more cold reality than the broken home from which he fled.

Viewers interested in a poetic mourning of childhood innocence will find plenty to admire here, but those seeking to recapture the mischief and vitality of a treasured classic may be left confused and crestfallen.

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