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Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Warner Home Video
Blu-ray Disc Released: 3/2/2010

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/28/2010

Get it on Blu-ray Disc, DVD, and Download on March 2nd!

Turning a book into a movie is never easy. Think about it, a novel can have hundreds of pages, dozens of characters, multiple locations -- how do you condense into a viewer-friendly running-time? Also, what if the book portrays things which don't exist in our world? That could cost multiple millions of dollars. And if adapting a long book seems intimidating, what about a short one, such as a picture book? There, one must add to or extrapolate the story in order to create a feature film. Can this be done successfully? Let's take a look at the live-action version of Where the Wild Things Are.

Where the Wild Things Are introduces us to Max (Max Records), a rambunctious young boy. Max plays by himself in the snow, and then watches his older sister (Pepita Emmerichs) go off with her friends. Upset by this, he wrecks her room. When his mother (Catherine Keener) gets home, he feels ignored by her and doesn’t like what she’s made for dinner. Max puts on a wolf costume and begins to run wild through the house. When his Mom tries to calm him, Max bites her and then runs off into the night. He comes upon a body of water and finds a small sailboat. He travels across a vast ocean (?) until he lands on an island. There, he witnesses a group of monstrous creatures. Showing no fear of them, Max approaches the creatures -- Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano), Judith (voiced by Catherine O’Hara), Ira (voiced by Forest Whitaker), Douglas (voiced by Chris Cooper), KW (voiced by Laura Ambrose) and The Bull (voiced by Michael Berry Jr.) -- and he is made their king. As Max plays with the “wild things” and incites a rumpus, he begins to learn more about them and their group dynamic. Max soon sees that even with “wild things”, there are emotions and conflicts which must be worked out.

If anyone knows anything about challenging book-to-film adaptations, it’s Director Spike Jonze. His 2002 film Adaptation. is a fictional account of how the novel on which the film is based was turned into a movie. With Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers have taken Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book and expanded the story into feature-film length. The movie had been in the works for years, and the production ran into scheduling issues -- the original release date was pushed back by over a year. There were also reports that Warner Bros. was unhappy with the film that Jonze had made. But, reports and rumors don’t equal a bad movie, right?

Well, in this case, they do. If you’re familiar with Where the Wild Things Are, then you know that it has a fairly simple story: Max misbehaves, he’s sent to his room, from there he travels to the island, meets the “wild things” and then comes home. The story has been analyzed in many ways, and it can be seen as a simple tale, or one can attribute deeper meanings to it. Apparently, Jonze wants to take the latter route with his film. The first significant change from the book (aside from the addition of new characters and more specific situations) is the fact that Max doesn’t go to his room, but instead runs away from home and finds a boat. So, was this in his imagination, or is there really a “wild things” island out there? Once Max gets to the island and meets the creatures, the movie should develop more plot, but it doesn’t. Instead, we simply get scene-after-scene of Max talking to the creatures, hearing of their problems, and trying to help them. The movie turns into a study of how even monstrous creatures can have distinct personalities, raw emotions, and problems getting along.

Is this interesting? Sure, why not, but it’s never entertaining. The movie’s biggest mistake is making Max so out-of-control and unlikable. Sure, in the book, he comes off as a pain, but here, he actually inflicts pain. Things don’t get any better when Max reaches the island. All of the “wild things” are sad, sullen, and whiny, and none of them are likable either. The movie has one moment of levity (using my favorite knock-knock joke), but most of it is quite dark.

Which brings me to my next point -- At whom is this film aimed? I decided to check it out first before letting my children watch it, and afterwards, I told them that they would have no interest in it. This announcement was moot, as they didn’t have any interest in it based on the trailers they’d seen. (And they’ll watch anything!) The movie is too dark, brooding, and violent for children. On the other hands, most adults will have no interest in watching these monsters not get along with one another. All of this is truly a shame, as the movie is simply beautiful. While he may not be able to tell a story, Jonze has a great visual sense and every shot in the film is wonderfully composed. I liked the look of the “wild things” as well, and found their homes to be very imaginative.

Somebody call the NTSB, because this movie is a train-wreck. Spike Jonze has managed to take an overrated, but still whimsical book and suck all of the imagination and fun out of it. We are left with a dark film which appears to be exploring themes such as absentee fathers while avoiding anything that resembles a cohesive story or characters to which we can relate. I sum it up this way: My wife and I usually watch movies in stages, but I had difficulty finding a stopping place in Where the Wild Things Are, as there aren’t “scenes”...just seemingly endless images.

Where the Wild Things Are needs to change its attitude towards corn on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 20 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only a slight hint of grain and no defects from the source material. The daytime scenes look very good, but some of the nighttime shots are a bit dark. The color palette in this movie skews to browns, but the colors look realistic. The picture shows a nice amount of detail (which can see the individual hairs on the creatures) and the depth is quite good. The Disc hold a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are quite good, as they are nicely detailed and match the on-screen action. The scenes involving the “wild things” often include good surround sound effects which help to place us in the action. There are some OK subwoofer effects here, the but creature’s pouncing should have provided more of an “oomph”.

The Where the Wild Things Are Blu-ray Disc contains a list of extras. "Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life" (24 minutes) is a short film based on a book by Maurice Sendak. It concerns a dog who goes out to explore the world. The puppet/CG (?) animation is very cool. "HBO First Look" (13 minutes) is a making-of which features interviews with Jonze, Sendak, and others. It looks at the progression of the production, the voice actors, and casting Max. "Maurice and Spike" (3 minutes) explores the working relationship between the author and director, whereas "Max and Spike" (7 minutes) shows how the actor and director got along. "The Records Family" (7 minutes) shows us test footage with Max and explores how Max got the part. "Carter Burwell" (5 minutes) contains an interview with the film's co-composer and shows him at work. "The Absurd Difficulty of Filming a Dog Running and Barking at the Same Time" (6 minutes) is exactly what it sounds like and shows how arduous filmmaking can be. "The Big Prank" (3 minutes) shows the crew playing a joke on Jonze. "Vampire Attack" (1 minute) shows Jonze fooling around on set. "The Kids Take over the Picture" (5 minutes) shows how the crew brought their children to the set.

Review Copyright 2010 by Mike Long