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MOVIE REVIEW

Where the Wild Things Are

Rumpus room: ‘Wild Things’ is an adventurous voyage to the end of childhood

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 16, 2009

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Let’s dispense with the preliminaries: What do the experts think of “Where the Wild Things Are’’? As the end credits rolled, my 12-year-old daughter and her bestest friend turned to me with faces like the twin masks of comedy and tragedy on a Broadway playbill. One girl’s eyes were wet with tears of sadness and profound joy; “I loved it,’’ she sighed. The other looked as if someone had stuck an egg-beater in her ear and scrambled her brains. “That is not a children’s movie,’’ she growled.

They’re both right. In adapting Maurice Sendak’s slender 1963 picture-book classic, director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers have teased out the melancholy along with the magic. While this much-awaited, long-in-the-works film has more than its share of wild rumpuses, its big, shaggy heart is in what happens after the rumpus dies down: insecurities, misunderstandings, fears. “Where the Wild Things Are’’ isn’t for little kids so much as it’s about them, and parents and tykes expecting the next “Shrek’’ or even a seamless work of Pixar genius will be sorely disappointed if not a little freaked out. The movie is a wild thing, and that’s not such a bad thing at all.

In young Max Records - 9 when the film was shot three years ago - “Wild Things’’ has a Max who’s much older than in the book but who still has the proper mix of angel face and Tasmanian devil (besides, he looks great in wolf jammies). We’re introduced to him as he and the camera both appear to be tumbling downstairs at top speed; the title is scratched on the emulsion in an ADD blurt. So far, so good.

Eggers, a novelist and occasional voice of his generation, has reset Sendak’s tale in recognizable reality, but he thankfully doesn’t dwell on it. What we learn of Max’s life is overheard in snatches, the way a child listens: Dad is out of the picture, mom (Catherine Keener) is stressed from work, older sis (Pepita Emmerichs) has jerky friends, Max is alone. A brief shot of mom smooching her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) is all the boy and the movie need to flip out.

He dashes into the woods and “Wild Things’’ gracefully transitions from our world into Theirs. Max journeys by boat as in the book (no sea monsters, sadly) and there’s a frightening, tumultuous nighttime beach landing. The film at this point feels genuinely dangerous, wired to explode. The score by Karen O of the rock group Yeah Yeah Yeahs is acoustic but off-kilter: It sounds like the “Juno’’ soundtrack with teeth. Then we meet the first Wild Thing. His name is Carol, he’s having a tantrum, and he talks in the voice of Tony Soprano. Perfect.

No, really, it works. James Gandolfini turns out to have exactly the rough-tough-creampuff vocal inflections a child’s best beast needs. When Carol sulks (which is a lot), it carries weight and it breaks your heart because that voice is so evenly split between menace and the cuddles. Gandolfini gives a great, awards-worthy performance and you never even see the man.

The Wild Things themselves have been designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop with extensive digital facework to give them full expressiveness. They’re remarkable creations, but you have to buy into the concept; if not - if you’re feeling churlish or tired or unimaginative - they’ll just seem like Muppets on steroids. There’s a giant rooster Thing named Douglas with Chris Cooper’s laconic voice; a lumbering couple, kindly Ira (Forest Whitaker) and sharp-tongued Judith (Catherine O’Hara); Alex the insecure goatboy (Paul Dano); and K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), who has the unkempt hair and “whatever’’ attitude of a slacker tween.

Max befriends them all and becomes their king - he talks them down from eating him with the timeless command “BE STILL.’’ It turns out they need a king or, better still, a parent. “Where the Wild Things Are’’ reimagines monsters as big, top-heavy children; it’s one long unsupervised play-date, fascinating to watch but a little wearing for all concerned. Jonze over-relies on handheld camerawork to convey the group’s manic bursts of energy - building a huge bowerbird-nest of a fort (a wonderful visual) or engaging in a dirt-clod war - and the film too often gets the wobblies.

There are inert patches, too. As with any sugar high, the crash is bound to come, and entropy sets in sooner than we or Max would like. The filmmakers’ additions to Sendak - like a pair of captured owls who speak in squawk-talk that only some of the characters understand - are more eerie than enchanting, and Carol starts losing his temper for real. Here at last is the problem with adapting picture-book classics: Everything implicit in the drawings is forced to become explicit onscreen.

The original “Where the Wild Things Are’’ is a parable about self-control for very young children - about the joys and dangers of letting fantasy run free, and about learning for oneself when to rein it in. Jonze’s film (to which Sendak has given his blessing) visualizes the process of learning control, and its keynote is anxiety - the characters see and are saddened by the gap between what’s broken and how little we can do to fix it. Told the owls will answer only seven-word questions, Max asks “How do I make everyone O-K?’’ and the answer is an undecipherable squawk that means: Figure it out for yourself, kid.

Because Max is a boy and not a Wild Thing, we have faith he will. The moral is tucked away where you can’t see it, but it’s there. By this point you may have realized that this version of “Where the Wilds Things Are’’ isn’t about childhood at all but about childhood’s end and what’s gained and lost by it. That’s why very young kids, dull Disney princesses, overprotective parents, and self-serious grown-ups should probably stay away, while the college students after the screening I was at gathered outside and talked in low, exultant voices. That’s why the 12-year-old next to me wept: For everything from which she had so recently sailed away.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Directed by: Spike Jonze

Written by: Dave Eggers, based on the book by Maurice Sendak

Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener; the voices of James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; IMAX theaters in Reading and Natick

Running time: 101 minutes

Rated: PG

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