Monday, May 03, 2010
Bless the beasts and the children's book
By Edward Copeland
I can't even count how many decades and years it's been since I read Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. I can't recall the impression it made upon me as a young reader (if it made any), but I do know I remember it more by reputation than as a book. Now, I have caught up with Spike Jonze's film take on the tale and, like many films that deeply divided moviegoers into camps of vehement lovers and haters, I find myself standing on a middle ground, finding myself neither here nor there, and ending up with a rather middling reaction to the movie.
Granted, there always would be problems padding out a book as short as Sendak's into a feature-length film, but Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers did give it the old college try. It's just that, for me at least, I found little in the way of magic or the fantastic in the result.
Max Records turns in fine work as Max, the disobedient boy who runs away from his mom (Catherine Keener), at least within his mind, where he's crowned ruler of a race of large and strange creatures. The tale is not unfamiliar from many a children's story ranging from The Wizard of Oz to last year's Coraline, only there really is no villain in the fantasy world of Max's creation nor characters paralleling people from his real life.
While the design, look and creature design of Where the Wild Things Are impress, little else does. It also hurts sometimes when voice actors are familiar ones such as James Gandolfini, who chooses an inflection too close to his Tony Soprano voice. In a scene where teams are divided for a dirt clod fight and one is surprised with a hit in the back in the head and another creature says, "I saw that coming," I could have sworn it was a replay of the scene where Joseph R. Gannascoli's Vito Spatafore said the exact same line at a construction site after Eugene Pontecorvo (Robert Funaro) smashes a bottle against Little Paulie's face.
Don't get me wrong. I didn't think this movie was bad, it just didn't capture my attention or my imagination the way this type of film ideally should if it's to be a success. There's never a real sense of growing attachment between the creatures and Max so when Carol (Gandolfini) gets weepy as Max makes his decision to return to the real world, I never sensed a true connection that meant that much between them.
With a movie like this that divided audiences so starkly, I always secretly hope that I'll land on the side that loves it. It's even more disappointing when I find myself in neither camp just thinking, "So what?"
The biggest problems with these sort of reactions is they leave you with very little to say.