By now you should know better than to expect too much from the movie version of a favorite book, particularly a book with sentimental tendrils creeping back to earliest childhood. As soon as the movie version of a book comes out the two need to be treated as two different entertainments, strangers to one another. Anyone seeking the same wavelength of warm fuzzy or mild scare they got from their favorite children's book is, sorry to say it, on a fool's errand.
Still, why do certain kids' books hurt so bad when they don't work out on the big screen? Why should many of us feel a special protectiveness for Where the Wild Things Are that we might not feel for, say, Curious George after his five-minute movie makeover? How will we react when someone comes out with a Madeline movie, padding here and conflating there to fill up 80 minutes, disposing entirely of the artwork and loading up the soundtrack with Randy Newman?
One thing that Where the Wild Things Are, the Spike Jonze movie version, has going for it is its down-to-earthness. It has authentically gorgeous Australian locations, rather than dazzling, showoffy digital ones. This feels like the place the wild things lived in the book, instead of something Peter Jackson cooked up in his digital kitchen for Frodo to cross en route to Mordor. It was also a smart choice to use costumes for the wild things instead of the technology that produced, for example, the admittedly marvelous Gollum. From a purely visual standpoint, the wild things and most of their kingdom seem right somehow. And that's pretty much the last right or familiar thing about them.
Skeptics will note that Sendak's book has only so many words, or sentences, or pages—and eight of those given over to the wonderful, wordless wild rumpus. Any adaptation, therefore, would have to invent quite a bit of action to spin a feature-length movie out of it. The problem with this movie version is that co-screenwriters Jonze and Dave Eggers mystifyingly fail to think up anything particularly interesting for Max or the wild things to do. Max's early misbehavior in the book becomes a tale of snow forts and smashed presents played out against a bleak but suitably vague background of family strife and single parenthood. It's by far the most interesting part of the movie. For the rest, frankly, I had a hard time staying awake. I couldn't wait to get off the island so I could go home.
I still remember the shock I felt, as a kid, after seeing one of those rare episodes of "The Pink Panther" in which the cool cat actually talks, speaking with the voice of Rex Harrison. In a similar way, it was a big and unwelcome surprise to hear James Gandolfini's voice coming out of the wild thing called Carol (huh?). Even with the rougher Jersey edges polished off, it's still Tony Soprano, a voice forever typecast.
Much has been made of Jonze's organic decision to record the actors' voices all together, instead of re-recording them individually in post-production. Gandolfini's voice sounds like it was recorded with the microphone mounted inside his right nostril. Holy nosebreathing. With Lauren Ambrose, who voices a female wild thing named KW (huh?), it sounds like the microphone was actually inside her mouth; you can hear her tongue sliding off the surrounding molars like a sea lion flopping off a slick rock.
I don't know what I expected semi-civilized wild things to act like, but it wasn't this: something between aging hippies on a decrepit commune and the vapidly chattersome background actors in a Robert Altman movie. The roaring, rumpusing wild things of the book are now a bunch of self-absorbed people in wild thing costumes forever dwelling on their personal hegemonies and perceived slights. There's even, apparently, a troubled romance between Carol and KW. Yeesh. The music does little to rescue either viewers or wild things from the doldrums. Every time a character says a line from the book, the music (much of it created by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) comes to a clamoring crescendo meant to reinforce, I suppose, a surge of audience emotion the movie otherwise does little to earn.
So it's like being stuck for two hours with Karen O whooping and Dave Eggers riffing on the theme of being a moody human posing as a wild thing. This might actually be truer to the spirit of the book than the book itself; though not named in the text, author Sendak privately named each of his wild things after relatives and presumably imbued his artwork with the corresponding personalities in a manner not transparent to any but his family and close friends.
Sendak, incidentally, approached Jonze about making this movie and stayed in touch with the writers throughout production. I suspect the people who will love it most are the ones who want most to love it; people expecting disappointment will find that, too. I didn't like it, mostly for the simple reason that it was too little Sendak—no way around that, really—and too much Eggers.
Where the Wild Things Are continues at the Carmike 10 and the Village 6.