The slim narrative of Maurice Sendak’s much-beloved children’s book is stretched out like Silly Putty in Spike Jonze’s disappointing film adaptation. The problem isn’t that Jonze and cowriter Dave Eggers adhere to the tale’s simplicity—young hellion Max (Records) sails across the ocean, lords over a group of magical creatures and returns home for supper—so much as they distort Sendak’s core emotional truths via rough-’n’-tumble Jackass Jr. spectacle.
It’s certainly true to Max’s character that he improvises his way through life, face-first somersaulting at every turn. But as Records plays him, he’s little more than a freckly fount of contrivance. Every disobedient and endearing action seems pre-rehearsed, especially during the real-world interactions between the boy and his mother (Keener). (A scene in which Max spins a yarn about a vampire breaking his teeth on a skyscraper is pure Eggers tweeness, right down to the way son pulls fawningly at mom’s panty hose.)
Max’s fantasyland isn’t much of an improvement. There are numerous exotic and practical locations, yet Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord film them with a deadening sameness—all flattened vistas and haloing sunsets, a forced paradise. This isn’t the world of a fertile imagination, but a lifeless playground where even the varied personalities of the Wild Things themselves seem to descend from on high rather than emerge from within.
These raucous, lumbering behemoths are eye-catching creations that lose their grandeur the minute they begin speaking in the voices of James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper et al. There’s an incessant disconnect between what we hear and what we see; the true soulfulness of Sendak’s parable never emerges.—Keith Uhlich
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