Deborah Ross

Less is more | 12 December 2009

Where the Wild Things Are<br /> PG, Nationwide

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Where the Wild Things Are

PG, Nationwide

Here is what you most need to know about this film: it isn’t a patch on the book. Usually, I wouldn’t put it like that. Indeed, as I have said before, and wouldn’t need to say again if only I could trust you had paid attention the first time, a film should stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of the source material, but I can’t seem to let it go with this one. Perhaps it’s because I’m just too close to this particular book. I grew up on Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which was first published in 1963, as did my own son, who insisted I read it to him nightly for about a year. I didn’t mind. It is short, just ten sentences, which is always good, and the alternative might have been The Big Book of Tractors, which was big, and full of tractors, can you believe. But in just ten sentences, Sendak created something unsentimental, emotionally complex and troublesome in a way this film never is. This film is Where the Wild Things Aren’t, starring James Gandolfini in a Muppet suit. 

It’s directed by Spike Jonze, whose previous films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, I liked very much, and the screenplay is by Jonze plus Dave Eggers, the novelist, whose one other screenplay, for Away With Me, I did not like at all. I believe we’ve spotted the weakest link. Anyhow, this version was, apparently, approved by Sendak, which is fair enough, although it does make you think: what did they give him? Rohypnol? (This sounds mean but I’m telling you: this is making me mean.) The original story, as you probably know, is a about Max, a rambunctious little boy who is sent to bed without supper and encounters scary-looking creatures with terrible roars and terrible claws when his bedroom mysteriously turns into a forest. It’s blissfully Freudian — not boy versus beasts, but boy versus the beasts within the boy — with a power that has everything to do with its very brevity, so how Jonze and Eggers thought they should and could expand upon it is anyone’s guess. Why didn’t someone stop them? Why didn’t someone divert them to The Big Book of Tractors? Why not throw $80 million at that? Why waste it on something that is perfect just as it is?

This starts as a live-action film, with Max Records playing Max, a sulky-faced boy with real anger ishoos and rather unpleasant violent tendencies. (What didn’t they give him but should have? Ritalin? I am mean.) His older sister doesn’t have time for him so he wrecks her bedroom. He discovers his mother, a single parent, canoodling with her boyfriend on the sofa, so he bites her. Hard. Now in big trouble, he runs away and is magically transported to that forest, where the wild things should be, but aren’t. They’re not wild at all. They do look great. The costumes are great and the CGI faces are great and the whole look of the forest is great, but they are not wild things. They are dysfunctional, neurotic humans with their own seemingly random ishoos.

James Gandolfini is the one called Carol who, when we first meet him, is in the midst of a destructive tantrum, destroying the Not Wild Things’ homes, although we never find out why, just as we never find out why the Not Wild Things are so unhappy and discontented generally. It is bewildering but not in an emotionally complex or troublesome way. It’s bewildering in a narratively confused, narratively lost, we-never-figured-out-what-we-wanted-all-this-extra-stuff-to-add-up-to sort of way. As for Gandolfini, we know it can’t have been easy going about in the suit, but do we have to hear so much of that Tony Soprano-style heavy breathing? It’s like he’s giving Carmela a good seeing to in there.

You know, it wouldn’t be so bad if it stood up as a story in its own right, but it doesn’t. It is also spectacularly uneventful. Long periods pass without much happening at all, beyond a lot of whining, and there is no ‘wild rumpus’ as such, just a dirt-clod fight that goes on for ever without really having anything to do with the price of fish.

The ending? Sentimental hogwash. Carol cries. Max cries. Max’s mum cries. It’s all horribly over-egged. It might even be over-Eggered.

Look, as I said, but feel obliged to repeat because of your poor attention issues, this is too much of a personal thing for me, but you may be different. Also, kids might like it but, then, what do they know? They push beads up their noses. What is the lesson in all this? That less is more, I suppose, unless you are considering buying me a Christmas present — why wouldn’t you? — in which case more is more, a lot more is a lot more, and diamonds are always, always good.