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Mini Movie Review: 'Wild Things'

"Where the Wild Things Are," with Max Records, stays faithful to the world of author Maurice Sendak, while creating its own reality.
"Where the Wild Things Are," with Max Records, stays faithful to the world of author Maurice Sendak, while creating its own reality. (By Matt Nettheim -- Warner Bros. Pictures)

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Is "Where the Wild Things Are" a work of art or a desecration?

Let the wild rumpus start.

There are few more hotly anticipated movies this season than Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book. That 1963 picture book, about a boy named Max who embarks on a journey to the far reaches of his imagination, accomplished in 10 sentences what novelists struggle to achieve in hundreds of pages. It made space for parents and children to acknowledge their deepest anxieties. It created a world.

Jonze has thrown away "Where the Wild Things Are" as a holy text. The resulting movie is one that manages to create its own reality and meaning, even while it brings Sendak's visual world to life with startling accuracy.

Jonze, who wrote the screenplay with novelist Dave Eggers, makes a number of radical departures from the book. He populates Max's world with an indifferent older sister and a single mother (Catherine Keener), whose date ignites the tantrum. Max, played in a fantastic performance by Max Records, runs out of the house, giving his escape a much more dangerous psychological edge.

Jonze faithfully re-creates the book's atmosphere, though he and Eggers have given the monsters names and distinct personalities. Max develops a friendship with one of them, Carol, whose explosive anger Max instinctively recognizes.

Carol is played by James Gandolfini, which may be the only poor decision Jonze made. It's impossible to hear Carol and not see some roly-poly version of Tony Soprano.

Every visual flourish and detail in "Where the Wild Things Are" is flawless, a meticulously conceived amalgamation of the organic and the surreal that completely captures the lines and austere beauty of Sendak's original drawings.

As cherished as Sendak's book is by generations, "Where the Wild Things Are" is not typical light family fare. But plenty of filmgoers will appreciate the sheer artistry, ambition and integrity with which Jonze has tackled a nearly impossible cinematic mission. He's preserved "Where the Wild Things Are" as an inviolable literary work and created a fully realized variation on its most highly charged themes. Most important of all, Jonze has achieved with the cinematic medium what Sendak did with words and pictures: He has grasped something true and terrifying about what it means to love.

-- Ann Hornaday


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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