Where the Wild Things Are is the latest attempt by a film maker re-imagining a book for the big screen. Usually, the difficulties associated with such a task have to do with condensing the plot of the book to a point where not too much is left out and not too much goes in that the audience would have to read the book to understand what is going on. Curiously, Where the Wild Things Are has the opposite problem. Being based on a children’s book, director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) (working with the author of the original book, Maurice Sendak) does not have enough material to justify a full length movie based primarily on what is present in the book, so he adds to the story.

What results is something that will put off most fans of the original book, especially children. Rather than adding fluff, as other recent children’s book-to-movie adaptations have done (namely The Cat in the Hat, and The Polar Express), Jonze adds a layer of serious meaning that goes above and beyond the basic anger vs. comfort theme of the original book. Where as the main draw for kids to the original book was the fiery main character, Max, and his vivid imagination, Jonze does not play to this fiddle entirely. Instead, Jonze decides to focus his film on the childish and selfish ways in which we conduct our relationships with one another. Yes, we are taken away on a journey in Max’s imagination to a world filled of wonder, but we soon learn that this imaginary world cannot be perfect when it comes from a flawed perspective. Thus, the movie has a dark tone overall, downright scary at times. You fear for Max as you identify the mistakes he makes, then you recognize that yes, you have made those mistakes before too. For this reason, I commend this movie. It adds an entirely new dimension to a familiar childhood story, without ever loosing the big picture that made it so appealing to us as children.

Synopsis: Max is a young boy with a fiery attitude and a very active imagination. Because of this, Max is misunderstood. His mother is a busy single mom and his older sister ignores him. As a result, Max feels alone and angry at times. Furious for attention, Max, with his attitude getting the best of him, acts out against his mother and then runs away from home. Alone again, his imagination takes over and he sails a small boat into the ocean. Here he ventures upon an island of strange, menacing creatures. He eventually convinces them that he is special, and they believe him, allowing him to be their king. Unfortunately for Max, being king is not as easy as he thought, as he soon finds out that there is more to life than being the center of attention and nothing is as easy as you imagine…

Acting: Max Records (The Brothers Bloom) does as fantastic job portraying Max. I was blown away by the full range of emotions he could show, especially when they are all believable. His role in this movie is one of the best examples of good child acting as I have seen in any recent movie. The role was perfect for him and he defined the role perfectly. The only thing I can complain about is that he seemed older than the boy I pictured in the book, but good results can’t be argued with. The “wild things” inhabiting the island are all acted brilliantly as well. Although computer generated special effects are used to show facial expressions, body expressions and voice tone and quality all added to the believability in these characters, especially that they come from the mind of a child. James Gandolfini (TV’s Sopranos) , Catherine O’Hara (Best in Show), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Chris Cooper (Jarhead), and Lauren Ambrose (A Dog Year) all contribute their voices. (22/25) 

Plot/Script: The plot of the movie is fairly one-dimensional, with its fair share of slight twists and turns but nothing really that unexpected, especially if you’ve read the book or are at least familiar with it. Script-wise, the movie is well armed. Characters say and do believable things, even if in general nothing really happens. Indeed the biggest problem with this film besides its somewhat controversial take on the book is the fact that the movie feels more substantial and involved than it actually is. Watching the movie, you will be drawn in to the characters and the struggle, but after wards you may look back and recognize that the movie is actually quite simple, which could put people off. In this way, the movie plays homage to the book, but don’t confuse simplicity with having to do with or trying to appeal to kids. (18/25)

Direction: Spike Jonze stays true to the originality of the artwork in the book with some fine directing. The movie reminded me very much of a Wes Anderson movie (The Life Aquatic) in the way it looked, especially in its dull yellow tones and craftsman-like props and costumes. The way the movie feels though, is drastically different from a Wes Anderson movie. In fact, I can’t think of a film that puts to use an unnerving tone so well. Jonze’s camera work, especially when the action is tense, captures the feeling of being a child alone in the world and transfers it directly to the audience. The innocence of the world in the mind of the child is played perfectly against our own concerns and experiences that everything is not perfect and its only a matter of time before something bad happens. In essence, through his direction Jonze puts an adult’s perspective on the children’s book, which explains why fans of the original book may not like the movie, especially when the view they have of the book is through their own childhood experiences rather than through their adult ones. (24/25)

Special Effects/Music/X-Factor: As I said above, the special effects are a great homage to the art work in the book. The “wild things” are more realistic than first impressions indicate, especially since computer effects are used to enhance their realism. I expected actors in big lumbering suits with puppet-like mouths but that is not the case at all, thankfully. However, as this movie is based primarily on what Max imagines, some aspects of the movie are a little bizarre or even confusing. The music is beautiful, but it falls under the bizarre category especially when it ventures towards indie rock, something I don’t particularly like to see in a film, especially when that film is based on a children’s book. I think original music for the movie would have been more suitable, at least mixed in. Finally, the X-factor of this movie is really the unique perspective it puts on a children’s book, but most people will look past that and only see the fact that this movie IS a movie version of a children’s book.  Therefore, although the movie has important artistic qualities, it is not quite an instant classic. (22/25)

The Verdict:

What Kept Me Watching: It remains faithful to the children’s book on which it is based, but adds a sophisticated perspective that is unique and enveloping.

What Killed It: This new perspective conflicts with the perspective many of us may have associated with the children’s book, this movie will not entertain most children even if they know the book very well.

Summary: How to make a children’s book for adults.

Final Rating: (86/100) = B