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Staying true to book creates thin storyline in 'Wild Things'

POSTED: October 14, 2009 10:00 p.m.
/Warner Bros.

Images dazzle at first in "Where the Wild Things Are," but the story falls flat.

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The trailer for "Where the Wild Things Are" manages to dazzle our senses and evoke a host of emotions. Ironically, by the end of the film itself I felt almost nothing.

Viewers will likely love or hate "Where the Wild Things Are," which means for some lovers of the book this will be the most disappointing film of the year. The book offers very little content, and the filmmakers add almost nothing. Is it faithful to the book? Yes. Is it exciting on its own? No.

Max (Max Records) is an imaginative boy who constructs vivid, elaborate fantasies. But Max is also a lonely kid. His single mother (Catherine Keener) struggles to support the family, and while she loves Max, she doesn't have much time to spend with him. His older sister (Pepita Emmerichs) has reached the age when she'd rather hang out with boys than play with Max.

Max responds to that pain with anger and violence. The first time we see Max, he wears his monster costume and chases the dog around the house, screaming at the top of his lungs and wielding a fork like a weapon.

It's a shocking introduction, and Max is a deeply troubled kid. As a parent, I sympathized with him because of that. If I were a kid, I'd find Max scary rather than likeable.

Max's mother has a man over for dinner one night, so Max throws a jealous tantrum. He climbs onto the dinner table and bites his mother. She yells at him in dismay, prompting Max to run out of the house and into the night.

He explores the neighborhood until he finds a boat resting on the shore of a sea, so he sails across to the island where the wild things are.

Max's trip to the island is clearly imaginary in the book, but the film presents it realistically, which might make the monsters too intense for young children.

Max comes upon the wild things at night around a campfire. They initially decide to eat Max. They all surround him, closing in for the kill.

The book itself is quite dark, but this sequence is downright scary.

Max lies his way into becoming king of the wild things, and for a while it seems he has found a new family that will play with him constantly. But everything gradually goes wrong, until the imaginary family is more dysfunctional than his real family.

The wild things are actors in huge costumes designed by Jim Henson Co., only their faces done by computer-generated imagery. We've never seen anything quite like it. An outstanding cast voices the monsters, including James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose. The hipster soundtrack is by Carter Burwell and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The film captures the free spirit of childhood play and explores the mentality of a kid grappling with mortality and his own destructive power.

But by the end, "Where the Wild Things Are" feels like a failure because Max doesn't learn anything. He feels abandoned by his family, yet he eventually leaves the island while his new monster family is in a shambles.

If he has developed sympathy and understanding for others, he certainly doesn't act on it. At no point is Max forced to make amends for lying, for hurting others' feelings or for instigating problems among his new friends.

This movie will struggle to find an audience. It's too intense, visually and emotionally, for children in the book's age range right now. Young adults will likely be bored out of their skulls. Some adults may find it nostalgic, but they're just as likely to view Max as an unlikeable brat.

The visuals keep us enthralled for a while, but the third act slows to a tedious crawl. Since Max doesn't go through any real change, this movie based on a book - that for so many means so much - ultimately means nothing.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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