Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language, 94 minutes
Enjoyable, wistful but empty "Where the Wild Things Are"
Everything about the new film "Where the Wild Things Are" is different. From the astonishing costumes to the snappy indie-rock score to the beloved source material itself, it wears its unconventional nature on its sleeve. Based on the popular but odd and very short children's book of the same name, the enjoyable but empty "Where the Wild Things" remains true to the offbeat, wistful spirit of the book even it's stretched and padded to fill 90 minutes.
Max (Max Records), a rambunctious and sensitive boy feels misunderstood at home and escapes to where the Wild Things are. He lands on an island with seven mysterious and strange monsters whose emotions are as wild and unpredictable as their actions. There's Carol (James Gandolfini), who has a temper problem; the bird-like Douglas (Chris Cooper), who's Carol's right-hand man; the couple Ira (Forest Whitaker) and Judith (Catherine O'Hara); a goat named Alexander (Paul Dano) that no one listens to; the menacing, silent Bull (Michael Berry, Jr.) and KW (Lauren Ambrose), the young voice-of-reason within the group of Wild Things.
The Wild Things desperately long for a leader to guide them, just as Max longs for a kingdom to rule. When Max is crowned king, he promises to create a place where everyone will be happy. Max soon finds, though, that ruling his kingdom is not so easy and his relationships there prove to be more complicated than he originally thought.
Based on Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are" is a handsome, entertaining but somewhat vacuous production, but then it didn't come without its challenges. Director and co-writer Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") does an adequate job in adapting Sendak's difficult, essentially unfilmable story, which is only 10 lines long, leaving quite a bit to be filled in over the course of a feature-length film. Some elements work, such as adding creature identities, while others, such as some of the inter-creature drama (not to mention a mud clot fight) seem like empty filling, lacking an emotional pull and poignancy to unify the story. If the story doesn't amaze you, then the special effects will.
The dazzling creatures in "Wild Things," impressively created by The Jim Henson Creature Shop with a mixture of CGI, animatronics and suitmation (basically the actors in enormous suits with their expressions added over the creatures faces in post-production), is the clear highlight of the film and what you'll remember it for. Somehow all of this works, even if it slightly overwhelms the story; it's also unnecessary for the actors to contribute physically when voice work and a few expressions would've sufficed. Still, they all do an admirable job, with young newcomer Records carrying the film well, and Dano, Ambrose and O'Hara the standouts of the Wild Things.
Also a standout in the "Wild Things" production is the folksy, energetic indie-rock score by director Jonze's ex-girlfriend Karen Orzolek (or just Karen O, as she's commonly known) of the punk rock band Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs that memorably adds to the unconventional tone of the film. The single "All Is Love," heard in the trailers and over the end credits, is a catchy, downloadable tune that should be a hit.
"Where the Wild Things Are" is an impressive, handsomely filmed (and expensive) production that would have hit a home run had it connected emotionally to its audience. The mid-section in particular is too slow and it lacks a strong, emotional hook and an overriding theme to take home. This a decent effort from director Jonze and company (the creatures and the music are both Oscar-worthy): it's entertaining and wholly suitable for the family, even if you won't get much out of it.