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Where the Wild Things Are -- Film Review

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An illustrated children's book that consists of nine sentences and 20 pages does not immediately suggest a feature film adaptation. Nonetheless, Spike Jonze has fearlessly plunged ahead to weave whimsical movie magic to bring Maurice Sendak's 1963 "Where the Wild Things Are" to the screen.

The story, as millions of children and grown children know, tells of a rambunctious boy, sent to bed without his supper, who then encounters fearsome-looking but surprisingly gentle creatures when his bedroom turns into a mysterious forest. The film does surmount one of its two difficult challenges: Through puppetry and computer animation, the filmmaking teams have successfully put a world of childhood imagination on the screen. Where the film falters is Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers' adaptation, which fails to invest this world with strong emotions.

Children might enjoy the goofy monsters and their fights and squabbles, but adults likely are to grow weary of the repetitiveness. In the end, the book probably was too slender to support a 102-minute movie. Without a quest to propel the story, such as Dorothy's journey in "The Wizard of Oz," the movie turns into an afternoon-special with an easily digested moral that fails to grab youngsters by the collar and shake them up with an exciting adventure.

A viewer is encouraged to see that Max's (Max Records) rough play with the family dog and his snowball fights with neighborhood kids are angry reactions to a home life that disturbs him. His single mom (Catherine Keener) must juggle demanding work assignments and a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) while perhaps neglecting her impressionable son.

An older sister's self-absorption and a science teacher's declaration that one day the sun will die don't help matters. Nonetheless, the boy is too much of a brat to elicit much sympathy. And his adventures with the Wild Things never captivate a viewer.

Rather than being exiled to his room, the boy, clad in only a wolf costume, runs away into the night. He discovers a sailboat that transports him to the faraway land of Wild Things, creatures that nurture childlike ambitions and grudges.

It is not long before he declares himself a Viking king. Swallowing anything the wee lad says, the monsters nominate him to be their king, too. He readily accepts and promises to keep them happy and safe. Max is about to learn the first lesson of a politician: Be careful about what you promise a potential constituency.

The monsters carry on like children themselves. They wish to sleep in piles of furry bodies, think and behave with a child's self-righteousness and are swift to perceive any slight. The large costume suits, courtesy of Jim Henson Co.'s Creature Shop, achieve a remarkable semblance to the witty illustrations of Sendak (who as one of the film's producers was heavily involved in overseeing the page-to-screen transition).

The Wild Things are overgrown dolls with expressive, feral faces and often lighter-than-air bodies. (Sendak reportedly based his monsters on family members studied intently as a child.) They rather like to bash things but are quick to realize that little gets accomplished by such actions.

The voice actors couldn't be better. James Gandolfini plays the pack leader, Carol, who looks avidly for purpose in life and thinks Max might provide the key. Catherine O'Hara is the sardonic, pessimistic Judith, all mouth and one horn growing incongruously out of her nose; Forest Whitaker is her patient and possibly adoring companion, Ira; Paul Dano is a put-upon goat; Chris Cooper plays the birdlike, kinetic Douglas; and Lauren Ambrose is the aloof KW.

Virtually plotless escapades in monster land feature the building of a fort and a dirt-clod fight, all things that Max instigates without any thought about how these activities will fulfill his promises to the gang. They don't, causing him to realize that "it's hard to be a family."

The Australian production takes huge advantage of the hills, sand dunes and shores of the outer Melbourne area to create the changeable landscapes of this other world. Cinematographer Lance Acord, Jonze's collaborator on "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," superbly integrates the imaginative with the real, and K.K. Barrett's design further enhances this "real" fantasy, a far cry from the studio-bound phantasms of old. A rock-pop score by Karen O and Carter Burwell tries too hard and at too loud a pitch.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Opens: October 16 (Warner Bros.)