Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Released today on DVD: "Where the Wild Things Are"

Grade: A-minus

The terrific, captivating film of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is unique among movies from children's stories. It's thoughtful, intimate and not just imaginative but also respectful of imagination. Most importantly, this shaggily charming movie knows that kids' oversized emotions are just as gripping as their wildness.

Even when playing on his own, 9-year-old Max (played by newcomer Max Records) causes quite a rumpus. After his older sister's pals smash his snow fort while his single mother (Catherine Keener) ignores him in favor of work and a new boyfriend, Max acts out, biting his mom and running away in his full-body wolf costume.

At a water's edge, he finds -- in pure Sid & Marty Kroft fashion -- a boat that takes him to a mysterious island where he befriends seven giant creatures who make him their king and embody all sides of Max, though in freaky, furry form. Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano) is constantly left out; Judith (velvet-toned Catherine O'Hara) is bossy; KW (whispery Lauren Ambrose) is loving yet needy. And then there's unpredictable Carol (James Gandolfini, sounding like he has a stuffy nose), who becomes like Max's id, the wild thing's wild thing.

But controlling these monsters, and keeping them free from hurt feelings, is a lot for a boy in a wolf suit. Especially when his kingliness is a fake, while the damage they and he can do is very real.

And speaking of real: You can't take your eyes off the wild things. Though at first they resemble H.R. Pufnstuff, the sophisticated puppetry that gives them scruffy, surreal life (there's minimal CGI used here) makes them feel tactile and genuine. The voice performances, especially from Gandolfini and O'Hara, are pitch-perfect, as is the tribal score from Carter Burwell and Karen O.

If the script, from director Spike Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers, stumbles in its last third, it's because most of it so elegantly expands upon Sendak's 1963 classic. This could easily have been How the Grinch Stole Christmas or The Cat in the Hat had great care not been taken.

Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) has said he wanted to make a movie about childhood, not a children's movie, and so viewers under 6 may finish watching this a bit more sad than ecstatic, and parents should be aware there's no Glinda or Willy Wonka around to grant wishes. The conflicts Max and the wild things face are mostly left unresolved. But that's fine, because the film treats kids' inner lives as more than a fantasy, which is a rare and beautiful thing.

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