Family Filmgoer: 'Where the Wild Things Are'

Paul Dano is the voice of Alexander in
Paul Dano is the voice of Alexander in "Where the Wild Things Are," a film adapted from Maurice Sendak's book. (By Matt Nettheim/warner Bros. Pictures)

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By Jane Horwitz
Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (PG, 94 minutes)

Some parents may decide that this inventive, moody adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved 1963 picture book is too emotional and intense to be a family film. And for some children, they would be right. Director and co-screenwriter (with Dave Eggers) Spike Jonze has expanded on little Max's interaction with the Wild Things in Sendak's book in ways the author may not have imagined (though he has given the film his enthusiastic blessing).

The film reaches a level of realism that other darker children's stories, such as "Coraline" (PG, 2009) don't, because they're animated. Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are" mixes live action, puppetry and animation. The young protagonist is very real indeed, as are his temper tantrums, fears and sadness. What's clever is that all his troubles and personality traits are echoed among the Wild Things he befriends when he enters his imaginary world after a fight with his mom.

This film is okay for most kids 10 and older and certainly interesting stuff for teens and adults. However, it is not for kids who have short attention spans, who find strong, realistically portrayed emotions hard to deal with, or who could be scared into nightmares by the idea of stuffed animals becoming enormous monsters. The film shows the Wild Things at times fighting and hurting one another, and saying hurtful things.

Max (the gifted Max Records) dresses in a wolf outfit and causes a scene with his mom (Catherine Keener), biting her on the shoulder. She says he's "out of control" and he runs off into the evening. At this point realism becomes fantasy. Max sails through a heavy storm, nearly drowning and lands at an island where he sees the Wild Things. They're having a dispute. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is destroying structures in a tantrum like Max's.

Max meets the Wild Things, who decide not to eat him, but rather to make him their king if he promises to keep sadness and loneliness at bay. Max decides to help the monsters build Carol's perfect town, but what starts as an idyllic and bumptious friendship degenerates into disagreements, jealousies, perceived betrayals and disappointments -- like the real world. The story ends on a conciliatory note as Max leaves the Wild Things and goes back through the woods to his worried mom.

Parents may be surprised at how much kids 10 and older will understand watching this unusual adaptation.

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6 and Older

"Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" (PG). Deliriously funny and inventive, this animated comedy in 3-D will tickle kids 6 and older. In fact, the hilarity will delight all ages. A few things could scare the littlest ones: There is a dangerous spaghetti tornado, an avalanche of leftovers and an out-of-control food-flinging machine. There is mild toilet humor, and one character swells up after eating peanuts, but is okay. In a dreary little island town off the Atlantic Coast, inventor Flint Lockwood (voice of Bill Hader) creates a machine that converts water into food. Only he can't control it. A perky TV weather reporter, Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), covers the story. Flint and Sam may be kindred spirits, but first the pasta twister hits and they must stop his machine!

PG-13

"Good Hair." Comedian Chris Rock headlines (he also co-produced and co-wrote) this enlightening documentary about African American women and how they feel about -- and treat -- their hair. With irony, empathy, facts and humor, Rock delves into the questions of what's beautiful, whether to straighten or go "natural," why a women would spend $1,000-plus on a hair weave and how African American men feel about all this. There are interviews with ordinary people and famous ones. The idea for the film was sparked, says Rock, when his 5-year-old daughter asked why she didn't have "good hair." The history behind that question underpins this often funny film with poignancy. There is some profanity and brief strong sexual language. Intriguing material for high-schoolers.

"Couples Retreat." A perfect example of how useless the PG-13 rating has become, this crass, misbegotten comedy is full of masturbatory and testicular humor and graphic visual innuendo. If it were actually funny, one could forgive and just recommend it for 17 and older. Four couples -- Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell), Dave (Vince Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman), Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis), and Shane (Faizon Love) and his girlfriend, Trudy (Kali Hawk) -- get a group rate at an island resort that offers marital counseling. The bland female characters barely register, except for Trudy, who is played as an over-the-top African American stereotype. There is an implied nongraphic sexual situation, a bare behind, implied frontal nudity, toilet humor, milder profanity, infidelity themes and drinking. Not for those younger than 17.

"Whip It." Drew Barrymore makes her directing debut with a film that is strong on acting and pretty slapdash on narrative. "Whip It" (written by Shauna Cross, based on her book) is about Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page of "Juno" -- PG-13, 2007), who is chafing under her mother's (Marcia Gay Harden) insistence that she compete in a beauty pageant. Bliss spies raucous young women on skates in nearby Austin and learns they're a roller-derby team. Bliss joins them and becomes Babe Ruthless. There are subtle drug references, cigarette smoking by an adult, beer drinking by teens, an implied teen sexual situation, midrange profanity, crude sexual slang and mayhem on skates. Okay for high-schoolers.

"The Invention of Lying." This irreverent little comedy loses steam in its third act, but along the way, it cleverly spoofs the human need for faith, mystery and little lies that spare people's feelings. Our narrator, Mark (Ricky Gervais, who co-wrote and co-directed), lives in an alternate world where everyone is genetically wired to tell the truth. On a first date, the beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner) tells Mark he hasn't got a chance with her. Mark accidentally discovers he can tell untruths. He tells his dying mother that an afterlife awaits. The afterlife idea catches on, and Mark becomes a sort of con man/prophet. The film contains fairly explicit sexual language and innuendo, homophobic slurs, suicide jokes, midrange profanity and drinking. For sophisticated high-schoolers.

R

"Zombieland." Gore and hilarity go together like tea and crumpets in this riotous horror spoof. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) was a college student in Texas when a virus turned most of humanity into flesh-and-bone-eating zombies. A neurotic loner who has learned to wield a shotgun, Columbus meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a macho guy who loves blasting zombies. The men are conned twice by sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), but eventually the four team up. Bill Murray has an excellent cameo bit. Along with comically gross violence, the film includes profanity, crude sexual slang and brief zombie toplessness. Okay for most high-schoolers.


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