Where The Wild Things Are (PG)

1.00

Stupid furry animals

I could scarcely believe my own eyes while sitting through Where the Wild Things Are, and I'm afraid that wasn't on account of any tendency to bedazzle. Maurice Sendak's children's book has become a classic since it was published in 1963 – an unfilmable classic, you might have thought, given it was only 338 words long. Spike Jonze and his co-writer, Dave Eggers, have allowed themselves rather more than that in their adaptation, though whether this 10-minute bedtime story merited the effort, or a budget reportedly in excess of $80m, will come to appear very doubtful.

It tells of a lonely nine-year-old boy named Max (Max Records) who entertains himself by cavorting about in a wolf-suit or else constructing an igloo in the yard when it snows. He lives in his imagination so much that he's not quite ready to deal with other people, and when his mum (Catherine Keener) tells him off at the dinner table he has a violent tantrum, bites her arm and runs off into the night. Now come the fun and games (one hopes) of the title destination: Max finds a boat, takes to the seas and fetches up on an island where a bunch of shaggy, 10ft-tall creatures dwell. They're a prickly, territorial bunch, and gullible too, for when Max tells them he's a king they immediately believe him, expressing a hope that he will keep "the sadness" away.

What to make of these wild things? Though furry and horned, they have human-looking eyes and voices – the actors playing them include James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Catherine O'Hara and Paul Dano – which feel at once familiar and strange. Max becomes a sort of lord of misrule, yowling competitively or leading a war game in which they chuck clods of earth at one another. Spike Jonze has said that he wanted the film to recreate "what it's like to be eight or nine years old", but the screenplay he and Eggers have written is actually grounded in what it's like to be an adult: the way these creatures kvetch and argue and fall out with one another makes them sound like participants in group therapy, or members of a hippie commune that's in meltdown. You think: what eight- or nine-year-old would possibly imagine stuff like this?

Unspecified relationships among the creatures create little stirrings of discontent, and hardly a scene goes by where one of them isn't airing a grievance or storming off in a huff. The look on Max's face grows increasingly bewildered: he seems to have exchanged one mystifying set of grown-ups for another. Tantrums and sulks begin to dominate, yet we never really understand the conflict animating them. The sort-of-leader of the bunch, Carol (Gandolfini), seems to have invested most in the idea of Max's innate royalty, while Max himself begins to understand how "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown": he doesn't know how to cure their unhappiness. But their scenes with each other are given no point or elegance; they are mere rehearsals of peevishness, the sort of thing Max might as well have stayed at home and indulged for himself.

Spike Jonze made his name on two memorably eccentric pictures, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation., which slyly goosed the traditions of narrative cinema. Neither was perfect, but both were distinguished by a questing, mischievous intelligence born of something to say. I have no idea what Jonze and Eggers are trying to say here, either to children or to adults, but it's difficult to imagine how they could have made a more tedious and exasperating attempt at it.

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