Max (Max Records) is a lonely little boy who likes to play, but usually has nobody to play with except for his dog. When it snows, he doesn't even have a companion to have a snowball fight with, but he does build an igloo of sorts, and though he cannot get his sister (Pepita Emmerichs) interested in it, when her friends arrive in their car to pick her up, he sees his chance and starts throwing snowballs at them. They're happy to oblige him, but they go too far and end up destroying his igloo, leaving him in tears. Max rushes indoors and into his sister's room, where he smashes up a handmade gift he gave her in revenge. If only there was somewhere he belonged...
For all its cultural impact, Maurice Sendak's children's book Where the Wild Things Are is very short, so when a film version was announced there were cynics wondering how so few pages could be bulked up to a full one hour forty minutes of movie. The answer, when it finally opened after a year-long delay, was that director Spike Jonze and his co-writer Dave Eggers decided on amping up the trendy child psychology to make a work that less appealed to kids, and more to those who were fans of Jonze's quirkiness. The reaction was a fair one, but there were a few who were not taken in, and that's because not only did the finished production show the strain, it was teeth-grindingly dull as well.
But how could this be? A film with Jim Henson's Creature Workshop crafting some lovingly made monsters and a filmmaker of Jonze's imagination should surely have conjured up something worthwhile. But what it looked like was an achingly hip, self-consciously touchy-feely betrayal of all the marvellous adventure of the original, a book which was all the richer for not making any bones about its love of the strange and its satisfying of the curious, and while compact, it had fired up the whimsy of those who read it. This film, however, was bloated and apparently was still struggling to come up with a satisfactory plotline right up to the first day of shooting, and indeed after shooting had wrapped.
We are introduced to Max as the product of a broken home, and he misbehaves because he's feeling neglected by his parents - we never see his father, but his mother (Catherine Keener) is shown trying and failing to juggle work and home life. This informs the rest of the movie, as what should have been a charming fantasy comes across as the endeavours of an estranged parent to connect emotionally with their rebellious offspring, leaving an impression of their awkwardness, pandering and downright embarrassment. Not a tone which helps what turns out to be far more fragile and difficult to sustain in the screen version than it did in the more robust source, and after a while it's like watching an adult futilely trying to entertain a tyke with a short attention span.
Max runs away after an argument with his mother, finds a boat and sails off into the night, travelling for a day until he washes up on the shore of an island. There he introduces himself to some stultifyingly symbolic beasts, which initially are mistrustful of the boy until he proclaims himself their king by promising to unite them and keep them from feeling miserable ever again, something which by the end of the film he has been conspicuously unsuccessful in doing. There's only so much cooing you can do over the cleverly manufactured costumes with their CGI animated faces before tedium sets in and the whole mood of trying to have fun with a cloud of gloom hanging over your head grows quickly tiresome. After a while it's like watching a serious version of vintage gameshow It's a Knockout, with any laughs or fun noticeably absent. Music by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Carter Burwell.
Real-name Adam Spiegel, Jonze first made his name as the director of some of the most notable music videos of the 90s, including The Beastie Boys' 70s cop pastiche Sabotage, Bjork's It's Oh So Quiet and Fatboy Slim's mall-dancing Praise You (in which he also starred). Jonze made his feature debut with the brilliantly bizarre Being John Malkovich in 1999, following it up with equally strange Adaptation in 2002. He also directed an all-dancing Christopher Walken in the video to Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice, and co-starred in David O. Russell's war comedy Three Kings. His opening out of the classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are was widely admired as well. Jonze is also the heir to multi-million dollar Spiegel mail-order catalogue business.