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‘Things’ Visually Dazzles

When Spike Jonze accepted Maurice Sendak's invitation to adapt the author's classic book into a movie, the award-winning director took on two Herculean tasks: faithfully expand a cherished children's short story into a full-bodied film, and render the unique world of the wild things as realistically as possible.

His interpretation of "Where the Wild Things Are" succeeds in the latter with stunning visuals and a well-crafted fantasy world with surprisingly realistic monsters, but it stumbles in its attempt to create a more complex and nuanced narrative that is sophisticated enough for adults and sufficiently playful for children.

With Sendak's original work of nine, spare sentences, the colorful illustrations provided the fodder for imagining the wild things and their island world, while the book's young audience created its own vision of Max, a rambunctious everychild.

The daunting challenge of creating a feature-length film out of those 338 words led to a yearlong delay in the movie's release, as the director and studio reportedly worked on making the creatures more lifelike and Max's character more sympathetic. Jonze and the screenplay's co-writer, author Dave Eggers, succeed in respecting the original vision of Sendak, but, while adding layers to the original story, have crafted a film more for adults than children.

Structurally, the film stays true to the book. Max is a mischievous 9-year-old who, when scolded by his mother after a particularly aggressive outburst, escapes by boat to a fantasy world inhabited by seven monsters, seemingly crafted from an imaginary spare animal parts bin — webbed feet here, a horn there, snaggletooth over there. The monsters at first threaten to eat Max, but he convinces the insecure creatures that he has special powers and should be their king. He is crowned, and, just like the book, his first order of business is to command; "Let the wild rumpus begin!"

This is where the movie script stalls and the detailed, painstakingly crafted fantasy world carries the film. The opening is paced perfectly, giving context to Max's home life through a series of scenes showing how, like a lot of pre-adolescent boys, he feels left out. His teenage sister ignores him for her friends. A concoction of rage, jealousy and sadness brews beneath Max's eyes when he sees his mother (Catherine Keener) canoodling on the couch with her boyfriend.

But the story drags once Max is on the island, failing to create a sense of urgency and immediacy. In order to add meat to the bones of Sendak's original tale, in the film Max orders the wild things to create a large fort to house all of them like a family. The fort ends up looking a lot like a basket weaver's version of the "Star Wars'" death star, and comes off as a pointless task because the reason the monsters need such a structure is not apparent after they happily spent the previous night sleeping in a big pile with Max under the stars.

The real challenge facing Max is learning to understand his emotions and empathize with others. Each wild thing is, in essence, a fragment of Max's personality. The wild thing Alex (voiced by Paul Dano from "Little Miss Sunshine") looks like a ram but acts sheepish. He is shorter than the other monsters, lacks confidence and always feels as if no one is listening to him. Max confronts these emotions gradually, but the captivating pace from the early scenes slows down. Playful scenes with the wild things give way to introspection and a melancholy mood.

The visual design of the movie is brilliant and enthralling. Max's homemade wolf costume looks like it was plucked right from the pages of the book. The wild-thing scenes, shot in Melbourne, Australia, with animatronic suits created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, are amazingly vivid and believable. Jonze only sparingly used computer-generated images in order to animate the monsters' facial expressions. He also traveled to Sendak's home in Connecticut during the production process to get the author's input.

The voice actors, including Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper, could not be better. James Gandolfini, having already tapped into his adolescent-rage-fueled wild side as Tony Soprano, is marvelous as Carol, the de facto leader of the wild things and the representative of some of Max's more complex emotions, such as jealousy.

Max Records — yes, that is his real name — is perfect as Max. Jonze coaxes a superlative performance out of the 12-year-old actor. Considering that Records spends the majority of his time on screen with puppets, he does an expert job of not over- or underplaying the emotional scenes.

The pace of the story suffered in the attempt to keep the original tone of Sendak's book. The book, published in 1963, is a tale of a child dealing with difficult, complex emotions, and ends with little resolution of those issues. It appealed to adults and children alike, at least in part, because of its simplicity. The film does the book's mood justice but is handicapped by the unenviable burden of having to honor the original while adapting and augmenting it for a different medium four decades later.

"Where the Wild Things Are." Rated: PG. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. 3 stars.

To find out more about Tovin Lapan and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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