By Jeremy Walsh
ArtsPost staff writer
Families be warned: “Where the Wild Things Are” is not your typical children’s movie.
It doesn’t keeping you laughing, it won’t bring you to tears with a sentimental story, its protagonist isn’t a model kid and it doesn’t wow you with amazing special effects. In fact, it might barely entertain your kid.
“Where the Wild Things Are” tells the story of Max (played by young Max Records), a lonely kid with a boundless imagination who demands being the center of attention.
One night, when his single mom (Catherine Keener) invites her boyfriend over for dinner, Max dresses in a wolf costume and stands on the kitchen table yelling at his mom, after she refuses to play with him. They fight, once she demands he shapes up, and Max attacks her, runs out of the house and down several blocks.
While alone that night, Max imagines himself an explorer sailing to a distant island inhabited by strange, large, fury creatures, at which point the film escapes into Max’s imaginary world.
Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”), taking on directing and co-writing duties (along with Dave Eggers), spearheaded this adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s famed children’s book. Though his story holds fairly true to the book, his film as a whole does little to live up to the book’s quality and reputation.
Jonze no doubt tried to depict Max as a misunderstood and lonely kid with whom the audience should sympathize. But early on Max comes off as a real brat, almost unlikable, and the film does not rescue Max from this negative light because he’s just as selfish and uncontrolled on his imaginary island.
Like the book, the film also tried to be silly, considering Max wears his wolf costume the entire time in his daydream and his new fury friends look like big mascots, but this story and characters clearly wanted to be more serious and somber.
Max’s imaginary “wild things” do enjoy bouncing against trees and each other, but for the most part, they have pretty serious dialogue and generally don’t look like they’re having fun.
Physically, the creatures are slightly hunched over with sullen facial expressions, not typical traits of a child’s imaginary friends.
In actuality, the creatures were created using a smorgasbord of movie magic techniques. The filmmakers combined computer generated imagery, animatronics and actors in costume to bring the wild things to life. For the most part, this concoction works because the creatures look real, helping the interactions between them and Max seem natural.
Though the filmmakers’ effects team had some success in bringing these creatures to life, it was hard to ignore the odd casting choices for voice actors. Noted dramatic actors James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”), Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) and Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”) all deliver their clichéd sentimental lines well but whiff on many silly and comedic lines.
It’s perfectly fine to give imaginary creatures serious dialogue, but in a children’s movie, the voice actors must succeed with the amusing and silly moments to ease the tension. Otherwise, the kids will get bogged down in the seriousness, making the film experience less fun.
The child actor Records falls into a similar trap because he nails almost every emotionally somber and sympathetic moment (despite wearing a wolf costume), but every time Max is supposed to be having fun, Records portrays a seriously out-of-control kid.
That may not be entirely Records’ fault because Max was written to be a wild child, who maybe learns something about himself while on his imaginary island. That’s not the Max who really ever appears on-screen.
Instead, that Max is one parents hope like hell their kid never turns out to be. At no point in the film is he a desirable character to parents or a role model for children, a mind-blowingly dumb idea for a family movie protagonist.
The filmmakers clearly set out to make an atypical children’s movie, a serious film for kids that included some silly moments. But the film experience wasn’t fun, and even children’s movies that try to be darker than light or comedic (like “James and the Giant Peach” or “Coraline”) are fun. “Where the Wild Things Are” is one to forget.