October 22, 2009

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Where the Wild Things Are (PG)
Max goes to the land where wild things roar their terrible roars and hold a rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are, a lovely, sweetly gloomy adaptation of the beloved kids’ book.

Here, Max (Max Records) gets a bit more back story than in the book. He’s a lonely kid whose older sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) ignores him for her teenage friends and whose mother (Catherine Keener) we see desperately trying to hang on to a job and attempting to eke out a relationship with a man (Mark Ruffalo). Nobody has time to see his forts or visit his other imaginary worlds. So he puts on his wolf suit and acts out — growling and biting because he’s angry and sad. After a fight with his mom, he runs away, through the streets of his suburb and then to a boat that takes him out to sea, where he floats for days and days before landing on an island populated by giant Wild Things. They have bird or bull heads or horns or look like goats. They’re giant compared to Max, but once he tells them not to eat them, that he’s a king, they treat him with deference, particularly Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), a Wild Thing who is sad and angry because his vaguely teenager-ish friend KW (Lauren Ambrose) has new friends and isn’t around as much.

I don’t know if Where the Wild Things Are is a movie for children. But it is a movie that understands children. It understands the sadness and anger and loneliness that kids don’t yet have the words to express or the life experience to deal with. Instead they cry or break stuff or get angry or yell at their moms. Those scenes of Max are almost heartbreaking in the way they cut straight to the core of your memories of the frustrations of being a kid. Max works out his emotions and grows up a bit with the Wild Things. This is not how it happens in the book — which is almost more a collection of pictures set to poetry than a fairy tale-like story — but it is how I remember the book making me feel when I was a kid. The Wild Things and the landscapes are big and awe-inspiring but they’re not bright or cartoonish. Even though it might not be what you, as an adult, would picture your kid-self imagining, the look and contemplative tone of the film somehow feel like something that your kid-self would have understood.

Likewise, the characters — which in the book were pretty much always just a mob of wild rumpusing and pile-sleeping big-but-friendly monsters — here have more definition, more layers. But as in Maurice Sendak’s book, they feel like the kind of characters a boy would invent to be his friends. Some are gloomy, some do what you say, some argue and some, like Carol, are your unquestioning best friend.

For all of this, I don’t know that I’d give an unqualified recommendation to take your young Sendak fan to the movie. It is dark, it is sad. It is beautiful and calm in a way that not all children will find entertaining. Many of them may find it boring and will let you know. The small children in the theater where I saw the movie (I’d guess mostly of preschool age) seemed to lean more to scared or at least worried. After all, the giant monsters do threaten a few times to eat Max up and he spends a lot of time apart from this mom.

I’m not sure who the perfect audience for this movie is. Maybe there isn’t one. Things being not-perfect are central to the learning-to-cope central theme of Where the Wild Things Are. And imperfection, as shown here, can be very beautiful. B+

Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language. Directed by Spike Jonze and written by Jonze and Dave Eggers (from the book by Maurice Sendak), Where the Wild Things Are is an hour and 34 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.