(director/writer: Spike Jonze; screenwriter: from the book by Maurice Sendak/Dave Eggers; cinematographer: Lance Acord; editor: Eric Zumbrunnen/James Haygood; music: Karen O/Carter Burwell; cast: Max Records (Max), Catherine Keener (Mom), Mark Ruffalo (Boyfriend), Lauren Ambrose (KW), Chris Cooper (Douglas), James Gandolfini (Carol), Catherine O’Hara (Judith), Forest Whitaker (Ira), Paul Dano (Alexander), Pepita Emmerichs (Claire); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Tom Hanks/Gary Goetzman/John B. Carls/Maurice Sendak/Vincent Landay; Warner Brothers Pictures; 2009)

“Ever so slowly runs out of the story’s magical ingredients.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Visionary director Spike Jonz (“Being John Malkovich”/”Adaptation”) flounders without a Charlie Kaufman script, (cowriting it with Dave Eggers) as he wearily tries to capture from the 338-word children’s fantasy book (in 1963) by respected author-illustrator Maurice Sendak the feeling of being 9. Though it opens with great promise, it ever so slowly runs out of the story’s magical ingredients and becomes a tedious watch.

“Wild Things” offers a mixture of real actors, computer animation, background indie rock music and live puppet shows, as it follows the adventures of a lonely 9-year-old boy named Max (Max Records) living in an undisclosed wintry suburbs with an adolescent elder sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) and a harried in the workplace and at home, single mom (Catherine Keener). When Max’s frontyard igloo is destroyed in a friendly manner by teenage neighbors after he starts a snowball fight with them and sis and mom are not there to help, Max shows he has some Freudian problems dealing with the opposite gender. He retaliates against sis’s selfish abandonment by wrecking her room and when mom brings a date home (Mark Ruffalo), while dressed in a wolf suit, throws an infantile temper tantrum and bites mom and runs away to the nearby woods where he finds a sailboat that takes him far away. Max soon enters the imaginary world of the Wild Things–a race of strange and enormous creatures (under CGI costumes and voiced by the six celebs: James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano and Lauren Ambrose). All the creatures were depicted as middle-aged neurotics –with none of the beasts a threat to eat the kid as hinted at. The aimless creatures allow the young boy to be their king, and the film seems to become lifeless at this point despite the lads encounter with the cuddly-scary creatures and the kid’s first command as king to “Let the wild rumpus start!” The thin story never got untracked and the fun seemed to be sucked out of the film long before the kid predictably returns home for supper, even though Max Records gives a fine performance as the needy kid with an unrestrained imagination and the production values of the CGI created creatures are first-class.

The pre-Oedipal story about a child’s rage against parental neglect and a dance on the wild side with beasts, becomes too bland and bleak to appeal to either children or adults. Its life lessons for parents on how to handle an unruly child never register as much, nor does the slight coming-of-age tale, nor the arty way this silly tale is told. Jonze tells us that Sendak encouraged him to find himself in Where the Wild Things Are, and so the film moved away from the book and for the last hour followed the childhood angst of writers Jonze and Eggers. Unfortunately their childhood trials were dull and not worth telling, except, maybe, as a home movie or as a therapy session for the writers, as it misses by a long way the fertile imaginary spirit of Sendak’s little book.

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