That's essentially what quirky and often-talented director Spike Jonze ("Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich") has done with Maurice Sendak's beautiful 1963 tale of a young boy named Max who goes off to become "king" of a community of 9-foot-tall creatures. Eschewing a more sophisticated approach, Jonze opted to hire a sterling voice cast—including Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, and Paul Dano—and give them distinct creatures to create with lots of predictable human-style traits and attitudes ("Oh, don't listen to her. She's such a downer," one female creature exclaims about another). He then turns the performance over to a group of Australian actors in large, unwieldy puppet outfits later married in postproduction with CGI facial movement. What we get is a mishmash of styles in a glacially paced movie that will probably appeal to adults who can relate to all the psychological dysfunction on display.
"Where the Wild Things Are" is meant to get into the mind of young precocious 9-year-old Max (Max Records), whose unruly behavior, particularly against Mom (Catherine Keener), sends him off into his own fantasy world to an island inhabited by oversized creatures with monster-sized troubles—a community not unlike a group of humans Max might discover in his everyday life. Because he wants to be happy, he thinks he can make all of them happy as well, and he proceeds to crown himself "king" of this tribe. It's not as easy as he thinks getting everyone on the same page—President Obama could probably relate more to Max than most kids will—and the film spends the bulk of its running time endlessly detailing his complicated relationships with this motley crew.
Clearly this is a personal project for Jonze, who completed initial principal photography three years ago and battled the studio to keep his vision intact. His inspirations are classic artistic family films like "The Black Stallion" or "The Wizard of Oz," but the results here only show how deceptively easy those movies made it look. Visually, his big sweeping vistas in "Wild Things" recall Caleb Deschanel's stunning cinematography in "Stallion," but the heart and soul and poetry so evident in that film is nowhere to be found here.
Perhaps it's just a bad idea to take so simple and beautiful a premise as Sendak's book and expand it. The actors generally do their best vocally, although Gandofini's troubled Carol gets way too much screen time for his—and the audience's—own good. Cooper, Whitaker, and O'Hara are fine, but it's the younger performers like Dano and Ambrose who give their beasts a little more dimension. The same can't be said for Records, who doesn't have the natural abilities of truly talented child actors and after a while begins to grate on your nerves.
Jonze is an original cinematic voice, and "Where The Wild Things Are" has scope and ambition, but in the end you just wish he had left it on the bookshelf where it belongs.
Screenplay by: Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, Forest Whitaker, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper