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Where The Wild Things Are

It's amazing how prescient the combination of Maurice Sendak, Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze could be. In bringing the children's classic Where the Wild Things Are to life on film, they've created a perfect allegory for our current times.

The young boy Max (Max Records) clearly stands for President Obama, who has ideas that he wants to accomplish but is blocked at every turn by so-called "adults" who make no effort to understand. The horned and hairy Carol (James Gandolfini) is obviously Glenn Beck, who loves his vision of his homeland so much that he wants to tear it all down when things don't go his way, bullying and crying when he fails…

Well, maybe it's not an allegory, but at some point in watching the film of Sendak's iconic picture book, you have to wonder "is there some deeper meaning going on here?"

Another question you might ask is "why don't I have the munchies?" because Where the Wild Things Are may be the first film targeted squarely at mentally gifted but frustrated first graders who really need to light up once in a while just to take the edge off. It's a small demographic, to be sure, but they're well served.

Jonze has done justice to the book. If it's about the inarticulate but wild range of emotions that childhood suffers, it's all here. The script expands that out a bit, showing Max struggling to stay connected with his older sister who's clearly growing up and into a new peer group. An overly zealous science teacher lectures Max and his fellow primary graders about the eventual heat death of the solar system. That's hard for a young kid to deal with, and it doesn't help that Dad seems to have left the family and Mom (Catherine Keener) works all the time.

Though Max might be a little over-indulged, it's also hard not to empathize with the forces pushing against him. Of course he doesn't have the words for them, and he acts out inappropriately. All kids do. But when he runs away from home and away from his mom's new beau (a blink and you'll miss him Mark Ruffalo), naturally he has to sail away on a boat that looks suspiciously like one he's made out of wooden blocks in his room.

The journey takes him to a wild island full of wild things, all of whom slowly reveal themselves to just be a big band of children themselves. Yes, they're a reflection of Max's own splintered emotions, and at first it's sort of amusing as they delve into "the Wild Rumpus."

Some posture, some threaten, some throw tantrums. And then they do it again. Just like Max, they have a hard time putting a name to their feelings, to be able to talk them out. Instead, they talk in impulsive threats and a rage that for some reason they can't seem to feel happy all the time.

And then they do it again. And again. To break up the monotony, a couple take Max to look at cool places on the island for heart to heart talks that don't really open up because they just don't have the language for it. The most articulate, naturally, are the females, voiced by Catherine O'Hara and Lauren Ambrose.

In fact, Ambrose's KW seems to be the main source of conflict, because she's willing to move outside their little circle and find new friends. It's a common childhood trauma, obviously reflecting Max's sense of losing his sister, but it's just done so slowly.

The achievement of bringing Sendak's illustrations to life, however, is amazing. They are life-like, and though Jonze made some adjustments in design - the horned buffalo is much darker, perhaps to better reflect his status as the loneliest of them all - they still look like they could have stepped right out of the book. And they step; this is a combination of costuming and CG that works seamlessly to make them believable.

In voicing the wild things, each actor does a fine job, adult voices with child-like qualities brought to the forefront. The live actors, too, handle each scene with aplomb; there's just not much to them, nor much explanation. Everything comes from Max's perspective, which is both right and ultimately unknowable.

And that's frustrating. Where the Wild Things Are will no doubt hit a certain cultural cache as a noble art film, spawning midnight screenings and worthy of study. But its glacial pace will certainly lose children, because they've already instinctively gotten what it's about, and the length of the original book is just about right to hold their attention on that subject matter.

Kids have better things to do than sit in the dark for a couple of hours watching this. They have to go out and be wild themselves.


Derek McCaw

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