Spike Jonze had a pretty impeccable record, from directing Christopher Walken's triumphal dance in the video for Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice," to producing MTV's transcendently stupid pain-porn Jackass, to his magnificent collaborations with Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Nothing about that remotely suggests that he should adapt a children's book, though. He does a great job of evoking the weird and making it normal, but he's never quite pulled off believable emotion. Ultimately, that's what sinks Where the Wild Things Are.
It's not just Jonze, though. The entire creative team is bizarre. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, best known for fellating her mic at live shows, composed the soundtrack; Dave Eggers, best known for a fictionalized memoir (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and a fictionalized biography (What is the What), adapted the 10 sentences of Sendak's original work into the screenplay; and Lance Acord, the mood lighting-proficient cameraman who has worked almost exclusively for Jonze and Sofia Coppola, is the cinematographer. Max Records, a child actor who has appeared in music videos for Death Cab for Cutie and Cake, is the star.
All in all, it's a team much better suited for MTV or a Brooklyn poetry reading than a live-action adaptation of a children's picture book. The tonal dissonance that results is about what you'd expect, though no less disappointing. The movie's shorthand for emotional resonance is unresolved conflict; whenever Eggers decided he needed to up the stakes, he simply had one character yell at another. Oscar-winners Chris Cooper and Forest Whitaker are chiefly used to mumble; Emmy-winners James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara are chiefly used to nag. These wild things look as though they could tear Max from limb to limb, but they sound like brooding community theater stereotypes.
The one thing about the movie that truly works is its look. Like There Will Be Blood, this is a movie that would have worked far better as a silent film, stripped of its dissonant score and distracting script. The wild things look right, and so does Max in his monster costume and crown. The castle he instructs the monsters to build is stunning, and so is the intricate model one of the monsters builds. The film's visuals are worthy of Sendak's original, if nothing else is. This may be one movie best watched in an airplane with the headphones off.
Crossposted at Remingtonstein.