At this point, you have probably seen the “Where the Wild Things Are” trailer taking up every other commercial spot on TV, blaring an earnest rendition of the Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up.” You have probably looked through the windows of Urban Outfitters, which peddles the film’s characteristic stuffed animals, T-shirts and leggings – maybe you have even bought yourself a shirt or two. The “Wild Things” franchise has literally turned into a hipster’s nirvana, and most people haven’t even seen the movie yet. But let this review be a warning: Don’t expect too much, because you will inevitably be disappointed.

Where the Wild Things Are

At Quality 16 and Showcase
Warner Bros.

Director Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers (“Away We Go”) have adapted Maurice Sendak’s timeless children’s picture book “Where the Wild Things Are” into a full-length film, extending 10 lines of plot into 94 minutes of cinema. Max (newcomer Max Records) is a rebellious kid trying to cope with the changes in his life after his mom (Catherine Keener, “The 40 Year Old Virgin”) brings her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo, “Zodiac”) over. After being sent to his room and biting his mom, Max angrily sails off into the land of the Wild Things, where he subsequently becomes their king.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is a film in which things aren’t wrapped up in nice, kid-friendly boxes. The Wild Things are scary. These huge-headed creatures do horrific things like destroy trees, push whole boulders off cliffs and eat the humans they don’t like. But simultaneously, their destruction is beautiful. When Carol, a Wild Thing voiced neurotically by James Gandolfini (TV’s “The Sopranos”), balletically body slams his friends and annihilates their nests, it’s frightening, but also magical. Directors often tend to romanticize childhood as a time of painless bliss. “Wild Things,” on the other hand, is a perfect encapsulation of a child’s monstrous capabilities without appearing too threatening.

The dialogue is delivered strictly in “kid speak” — it’s doubtful that any word in the screenplay exceeds two syllables. In this way, Jonze stays faithfully true to a kid’s world. Max is a kid acting like a kid, a kid who can’t completely express his thoughts in understandable sentences. While this is at first charming, viewers will eventually find themselves in a world they don’t completely understand. If the emotions evoked from the film can’t be described in words, they need to be made up in some other kind of intangibility, and in that regard, Jonze fails to deliver. When the Wild Things pile up in a huge sleeping heap, it’s cute and everything, but there’s also an overwhelming feeling of alienation. It’s like Jonze tries so badly to capture the spirit of childhood that he doesn’t consider that maybe the adults watching can’t keep up.

It’s difficult to sift through the feelings evoked from this movie at first because it looks so damn gorgeous. The casting is as close to perfect as it can get. Max’s face could have been cut out of a Renaissance painting. Sunlight liberally bathes each camera shot, and it’s as if some minimalist Japanese designer dreamed up the scenes where Carol and Max tread through a land inundated with sand. In the film’s soundtrack, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs tenderly vocalizes through conflict and resolution alike. If emotions could be told purely through visuals and hipster music, Jonze has literally made the most perfect film of the year. But while this might well be the most beautiful movie of 2009, it’s also the most underwhelming.

The thing is, there is no way Jonze could have executed the movie any better. The visuals stay true to Sendak’s haunting, soulful drawings — even adding a layer of depth to them. It is undeniable that Jonze has captured the voice of the book perfectly; however, that is not enough to translate into a working movie. Whereas the book focuses on one beautifully illustrated scene, Jonze tries to turn that scene into a long parable on life. Somehow it just doesn’t ring true.

This conundrum leads to a larger question: If something like this doesn’t completely gel with adults, will kids be more forgiving of, or even feel, the film’s emotional disconnect? The viewer is expected to see the world through Max’s lens, and, for some, this may prove nearly impossible. Yet this is a film that necessitates the absence of adult bias in order to truly appreciate its subtleties. Perhaps Jonze made a film targeted exclusively toward kids and adults who act like kids, a kind of Rorschach test that only the few sincerely connected to their childhood could pass.

“Where the Wild Things Are” isn’t a disaster — there are some scenes that are truly sublime. But a movie like this, for all its lush, slightly unorthodox visuals and standoffish childlike simplicity, builds itself up to be brilliant. And it’s just not brilliant.

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