'Wild Things' a dazzling, magical gem

Book-turned-movie an amazing, wild ride.

October 15, 2009 

Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" is a literary diamond: simple in design, brilliant in presentation. The author uses a mere 338 words and masterful illustrations to tell the story of a young boy who escapes his real world to a land of warm and snugly creatures.

Director Spike Jonze has taken Sendak's diamond and put it in a cinematic setting that not only underscores the story's simplicity but also presents it in a way that's dazzling and magical.

Sendak's story tells of Max, a young boy -- dressed in a wolf costume -- who is sent to his room without supper after being rude to his mother. He travels mystically to a land of strange creatures only to long for the warmth of his own home.

Jonze and fellow screenwriter Dave Eggers expanded Sendak's story by establishing more of a motivation for Max (Max Records) to seek an escape. Max lives in a world where he gets little attention from his always busy mother (Catherine Keener) and teenage sister. This becomes the subtext for Max's later encounters with the imposing Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini).

Initial moments on his fantasy island are a time of play and innocence. Max is declared King and gets the task of making everyone happy -- a job that eventually proves too daunting.

The Jonze-Eggers screenplay gives the large characters different bits of Max's personality. Carol represents the part of Max that longs for the security of home and family -- a part that's been threatened by the loss of a parent. Ira (Forest Whitaker) is the boy's artistic side while Judith (Catherine O'Hara) is his independent spirit.

The maternal KW (Lauren Ambrose) is the one exception. She's the reminder of love and safety provided by his mother that Max has always felt, even when being punished.

The depth of the script comes from the way that confrontation with the creatures helps Max understand his place in the world. Credit 12-year-old actor Max with having the skills to make the character Max believable both as a wild thing and a lost soul.

All this is played out through characters richly brought to life by creature designer Sonny Gerasimowicz and the Henson Studio. They take Max through his personal journey in a landscape as exotic as the one Sendak created for his book. Jonze has crafted a movie as compelling to look at as the book itself.

Lengthy praise seems contrary to the essence of the book. In honor of Sendak's writing frugality, "Where the Wild Things Are" is best described in one word: amazing.

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at rbentley@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6355. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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