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Photograph Courtesy Warner Bros.
MEET THE NEW BOSS: Max lords it over the beasts in 'Where the Wild Things Are.'

Problem Child

The Jonze and Eggers version of 'Where the Wild Things Are' will leave fans at a loss.

By Richard von Busack

THE BEASTS are touchy, certainly not touchy-feely, and not very touching. The Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers live-action adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are won't tread on many people's dreams, but you may leave at a loss. The film is staged in an Australian forest, dusty and ringed by a cliff; this island is the domain of seven or eight depressed creatures who talk like Elaine May and Mike Nichols monologues. They're cautious and fretful; they nurse passive little grudges and snipe at each other. When baffled, they make urbane little humming sounds, like someone at a museum trying to understand a particularly difficult painting.

Where the Wild Things Are doesn't talk down to kids. It gives them all due respect for the towering moods in small bodies, all acknowledgment of that miasma of depression that sensitive children wander through. But children's moods change, and this film's mood doesn't. It's essentially gloomy, like Peanuts strips clipped of their punch lines. Any moment of physical elation gets its counterpoint: the rumpusing beastliness ends with some injury, as per Mom's warning about how it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Sometimes the incidents of violence get extreme--against birds, for instance--and this fulfills the promise of a Harmony Korine children's special seen in the first shaky images.

Max Records seems just right as Max, the little boy whose father is out of the picture; he's being raised by a loving but tired mother (Catherine Keener). After a snowball fight goes against him, the boy throws a tantrum, hopping up on the kitchen counter and bellowing, Richard Harris-wise, "Feed me, woman!" (Come to think of it, the funniest bit in Eggers' Away We Go was the husband trying to talk macho sports-smack.) After a particular extreme bit of bad behavior, Max runs away to a local pond, where a sailboat waits. When he arrives on the island, Sendak's 388-word plot is acted out: Max is made king not because of his size but because of his storytelling. He gets the most trust from the rage-prone beast Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini). The other wild things are faithful copies of Sendak's bestiary--something between Chagall and Goya. They accept their newly crowned and sceptered king with muted enthusiasm, forming ever-shifting cliques. Judith (Catherine O'Hara), a rhino-horned anthropoid, is the most cutting and dangerous; KW (Lauren Ambrose) is the most maternal.

The beasts aren't always violent, but they always stare. They're always sizing Max up; and they're rough beasts, with mucousy noses and battle scratches. They are scarier than the book's creatures. Then again, when he was a kid, this Universal Monsters fan never thought those Wild Things were quite scary enough. Those Sendak beasts were such dumplings.

Being the whimsical birthday clown of American letters, Eggers has made a career of trying to oppose the critical impulse in himself and others--of trying to get in tune with an inner child who must never be silenced by adult concerns. (We see this kind of storytelling in Max's scene of weaving a tale of vampires and skyscrapers.) The problem of that approach is obvious: work that's formless and cute and drifty. There's no artistic force behind this movie, only whims and anxieties. A parting word from the beasts--"When you go home, will you say good things about us?"--seems addressed to a baffled audience.

Movie Times WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (PG; 94 min.), directed by Spike Jonze, written by Jonze and David Eggers, based on the book by Maurice Sendak, photographed by Lance Acord and starring Max Records and James Gandolfini, plays countywide.

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