Directed by Spike Jonze from a 400-word children’s picture book first published in 1963, Where the Wild Things Are may be the toughest adaptation since Tim Burton fashioned Mars Attacks! from a series of bubble-gum cards. Tougher, actually: Burton was working with ephemeral, anonymous trash; Jonze is elaborating on a classic by distinguished author-illustrator Maurice Sendak.
As its title suggests, Where the Wild Things Are is a book about the Freudian id—and it’s also a media saga, having served as the basis for an animated short, an opera, a ballet, and a museum exhibit, as well as a prop for child psychologists and some relatively discreet merchandizing. Thus tucked into a collective, multigenerational unconscious, the slender text exudes authority. Jonze has struggled to bring the book—which was to have been his first feature—to the screen for even longer than the eight years it took Sendak to finish it.
The result isn’t labored, so much as well-behaved. It’s difficult not to watch the movie as a series of decisions carefully made and problems responsibly addressed by Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers: Will the unruly protagonist Max remain a pre-literate five or be older? (Older.) Is the projection of his inner world best achieved through animation or puppetry? (Puppetry.) Natural or fantastic landscapes? (Both.) What sort of music will comment on the action? (Insipid indie rock.) But, mainly, if one is to make something more than a 10-minute short, how to open up the book?
Wild Things does open promisingly, with Max-ish doodles defacing the Warner Bros. logo, and proceeds brilliantly in providing a bit of a backstory. Max (Max Record) is an apparently lonely nine-year-old living in a wintry old suburban neighborhood with an early adolescent elder sister and a harried, single mom (Catherine Keener). Abandoned by his sis when her friends goodnaturedly wreck his front-yard igloo in a snowball fight, mad Max retaliates by trashing her room.
Unmotivated in the book, Max’s tantrum here is triggered by his sister’s betrayal and amplified by his mother’s. (Women!) When mom brings a date (Mark Ruffalo) home for dinner, Max dons his wolf suit and chomps down on her shoulder. “What is wrong with you? You’re out of control!” she shrieks as the bad boy flees the house. The music grows wilder—it’s Max’s night to howl. He finds a boat and sails off to discover his fellow Wild Things. So far, so totally Cassavetes: The first 15 minutes have a liberating, handheld tumult only slightly mitigated by alt goddess Karen O’s wistful, borderline twee, vocalizing.
Arriving at the heart of darkness, Max finds the Wild Things staging their own destructive freak-out in the woods. Nine-foot puppets with digitally enhanced expressions and celebrity voices (Catherine O’Hara’s being by far the most expressive), the WTs are hyper-real reproductions of Sendak’s cuddly-scary creatures—if considerably more loquacious. Master Record acquits himself well playing opposite these things, particularly once he becomes their king and proclaims that the mad, dancing, shouting, havoc-wreaking Wild Rumpus must begin. It is this taboo-breaking expression of infantile rage and the fantasy of omnipotence, given a spread of six wordless pages in a 37-page book, that Professor John Cech described in his tome on Sendak’s poetics as “a complete, pre-Oedipal submersion in the child’s ecstatic eroticism in which he satisfies his libido’s wish to dance with the overpowering beasts of his own creation.”
The book ends soon after; the movie goes for perhaps another hour. Falling asleep in the midst of a creaturely cuddle-puddle, Max awakes not in his room, as more or less happens in the book, but to the realization that he, the King of the Wild Things, must rule. (Call it his Obama moment.) “Will you keep out all the sadness?” one subject wonders. Turns out that the Jonze-Eggers WTs are rife with complicated relationships, hurt feelings, lost best friends, and secret new ones. (The identity of the latter makes for the movie’s funniest joke.) In an attempt to maintain his position, King Max produces one rumpus too many—and the neediest member of the gang (James Gandolfini) rips off the big bird thing’s arm (a horrifying moment, actually). Yelling that the perp is “out of control,” Max has learned what it’s like to be a parent: Time to go home.
While hardly as hysterical as Dorothy’s return from Oz, the denouement does lack Sendak’s unsentimental restraint—and, consequently, its power. Sendak was working from his own unconscious with Where the Wild Things Are, a book he has called “a personal exorcism.” The artist has cited early Mickey Mouse cartoons and King Kong as formative experiences, with a Jewish subtext that would give the Coen Brothers conniptions. Sendak’s yidishe mame used to scold him as a vilde chaya (wild beast) when he got too noisy, while her family directly inspired the Wild Things: “They came almost every Sunday. My mother always cooked for them, and, as I saw it, they were eating up all our food. . . . They’d lean way over with their bad teeth and hairy noses, and say something threatening like, ‘You’re so cute I could eat you up.’ ” The opera Wild Things assigns the creatures his relatives’ names. Shocking, as Sendak’s near-contemporary Philip Roth observed in the aftermath of Portnoy’s Complaint: “Going wild in public is the last thing in the world that a Jew is expected to do.”
Jonze has said that Sendak encouraged him to find himself in Where the Wild Things Are. Dutifully, the filmmaker gave Max a single mom and spent hours with Eggers talking about their respective childhoods. Not much poetic sublimation here. What’s best about Jonze’s movie is its kinetic feel for physical play—herky-jerky camera as Max and the WTs zip and bounce through the forest—not surprising from a former skateboard punk like Spike. What’s weakest is its blandness, the sense memory of a child raised on Sesame Street. The psychic environment is less King Kong’s Skull Island than Fred Rogers’s neighborhood: Where the Wild Things Aren’t.
Wild Things isn’t overlong, but it is underwhelming. Who is the audience? Children brought to see it might find it a downer—a case of what the New York Times has called “misery for art’s sake.” Triumph or travesty, this movie is more likely something for Jonze’s generational cohorts to love or loathe. (How many suburban garage bands had the name Wild Rumpus?) For me, it seemed like group therapy with the muppets.