What was in the water of Montgomery County when director Spike Jonze grew up there? His talented, self-destructive movie version of "Where the Wild Things Are" connects to the woe-is-me side of the childhood psyche. In Jonze's vision of the classic Maurice Sendak picture book, Max, the scamp who escapes to a world of wild things after his mother calls him a wild thing, becomes a needy guy whose new friends echo his own loneliness and melancholy.
He's more of a mood-swinger than a vine-swinger.
The scaffolding that Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers erect over Sendak's 338-word book can't hold the weight of their longing. It lacks richness and variety in incident and character, and it crashes when it needs sustained imaginative transport. As my 8-year-old self would have said, there's great stuff. There just isn't enough good stuff.
Jonze does grab hold of a terrific subject. The easily excited, just as easily bruised nerves of little boyhood - and an imaginative kid's quick yet deep reactions to the unthinking crudeness or insensitivity of older siblings or adults - have been primal sources for directors as different as Francois Truffaut in "The 400 Blows" and Steven Spielberg in "E.T." In its domestic opening, this live-action "Where the Wild Things Are" has the makings of a classic. Out of the drabbest materials - a snowball fight that goes wrong, and a tantrum and a half staged between a kitchen and a living room - Jonze carves a vision of a boy with unstoppable demands for attention and sympathy.
The details of his situation do not inspire confidence in an audience. How often have we seen a single mother ( Catherine Keener here) worrying about her job while wooing a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo)? Or a sister (Pepita Emmerichs) growing older and pulling away? Too often, perhaps, but not with moviemaking like Jonze's, which shoots us straight into the mind-set of a kid testing his worth in pitched emotional battle, on the run.
Jonze finds the resonance in hasty action - the smashing of a snow cave, the retaliatory wrecking of a valentine. He and his cinematographer, Lance Acord, use their speeding hand-held camera to create imagery with a built-in whoosh to it, like ace sports cameramen before digital clarity became the be-all, end-all. And, early on, Jonze and Eggers add inspired oddball touches, such as a spot-on hilarious depiction of an oblivious science teacher (Steve Mouzakis) who describes the inevitable demise of the sun to kids who are either bored or dumbfounded.
When open-faced Max Records flies to extremes as Max, his naked emotions provoke empathy as well as laughter. Jonze and his editors pinpoint the moments when the actor Max dials his adrenaline up to 11 and the fictional Max goes out of control. Dressed in his shaggy-tailed, wire-whiskered wolf suit, Max runs away through the dark woods and onto a starry shore and jumps into a ship that sails to the Wild Things island.
Unfortunately, he never again becomes a commanding figure - even after the huge figures there give in to his tall tales and declare him king. His victory over these creatures comes too casually. They resemble horned and occasionally web-footed woolly mammoth-scale versions of bulls, bears, goats and birds. They should be spellbinding for an audience - and Max should spellbind them.
But Jonze doesn't depict Max working a sorcerer's charm the way Sendak did, "[taming] them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once" as they brush their claws across their cheeks and brows. He's more like Ricky Gervais in "The Invention of Lying," telling whoppers to a crew that's never heard one before.
Max's plans to unite them as a family lack even the hint of storybook grandeur you'd expect from a boy who can spin tall tales about mastering Vikings. He orders a dirt-clod fight and engages them in public works, such as building a fort. The Wild Thing most like Max, Carol (voice of James Gandolfini), is the one who says, "It's going to be a place where only the things you want to happen, would happen." Max merely concurs.
These creatures are wonderful to see, irritating to hear. Despite the talented cast, they come off too much like sad Max and not enough like mad Max, even when they threaten to eat him. Because Jonze uses puppet suits rendered by Jim Henson's Creature Shop (Jonze employed digital technology only to animate their mouths), they convey a tactile solidity: They hold their own with Australian locations that sweep you up in sand, sea and stars. Jonze puts the real back into surreal when he displays Max and his new friends erecting giant versions of the sculptures Andy Goldsworthy makes from elements found in nature.
But Jonze lets the magic ebb away in a sorry mesh of strained relationships. Carol wants the family to be united all the time and wary of outsiders; he adores the elusive female KW (Lauren Ambrose) but is jealous of inscrutable new friends. Judith ( Catherine O'Hara) is a domineering neurotic who turns an inferiority complex into a superiority complex, and her recessive husband, Ira ( Forest Whitaker), is an enabler at best. They're all like a nightmare melding of the Muppets with the patients from "In Treatment." And their reflexive threats and impulsive destruction all too obviously reflect the conflicts crashing in and around Max.
You never completely lose their feeling for the little guy, but by the end you feel a bit like Max's mom. Once you know he's safe, you're more than ready to drift into deep sleep.
MPAA rating: PG (for some adventure action and brief language)
Running time 1:40
Starring Max Records (Max), Pepita Emmerichs (Claire), Catherine Keener (Mom), with the voices of James Gandolfini (Carol), Catherine O'Hara (Judith), Forest Whitaker (Ira), Lauren Ambrose (KW) and Chris Cooper (Douglas). A Warner Bros. release. Directed by Spike Jonze.