Sendak for Sale

The ideal state in which to enjoy Where The Wild Things Are is one of total obliviousness, with regard to its production background and major personnel. If you’d awoken one morning after four months without TV or Internet and then headed straight to the multiplex, you’d be in for a treat.

Start to finish, the film is sumptuously colored, delicately shot, and expertly paced. As always, director Spike Jonze nails the realm of living imagination, and the film’s best parts stem from his unfailing visual intuitions about plumbing the subconscious for unsettled beauty. If the movie had just dropped serendipitously from the sky, a haunting and fantastical childhood psychodrama played out in furry costumes and shining idylls, it’d be way easier to stomach.

Unfortunately, Warner Brothers, obviously terrified of its own hyper-expensive risk baby, has been so totally hell-bent on bringing you “Behind the Scenes” and “Closer to the Magic” – via its massive yearlong cross-promoted web and TV campaign – that once you’re actually there in the theater, 24 hours within its release, all of the film’s slick commercial anachronisms are virtually impossible to ignore.

Never mind what expectations you might have drawn from the classic mid-sixties children’s book that lends the film its name, main characters, and rough-hewn visual ID. WTWTA makes it clear from the first monster tantrum scene that it’s going to take Maurice Sendak’s quiet psychoanalytic allusions, mine them dry, and then position them front-and-center as the driving force behind the admittedly masterful monster suits and puppetry-play.

And no matter how fantastically sumptuous the F/X is, the original adaptation by Dave Eggers overtakes you with its characteristically soul-baring/teeth-gnashing script, never letting you forget that boyhood psychodrama is the main course. Not that all this heady Freudian stuff ends up lending itself to any nuanced exploration; Eggers gives the monsters voice to speak only to cast them all as tottering, bemused refractions of his precociously misunderstood 9 year-old protagonist.

Eggers’ plot, by the way, is propelled by the primary relationship between implausible wunderkind Max Records and the comically miscast James Gandolfni, so inescapably famous for playing tough-loving, paternalistic Mafioso Tony Soprano that his depiction of the tough-loving, paternalistic monster Carol never escapes the clutches of his own shwa-intensive New Jersey-bred voice, as if at any second he’s going to bellow out “CARMELLAAAA” by accident.

Meanwhile Forest Whitaker’s dulcet tones are reserved to maybe five lines total, as if he were saving his voice for a more worthwhile production.

But the film’s most tragic betrayal is dealt by Jonze himself. Whereas Being John Malkovich and Adaptation leant him the luxury of approaching real, uneven, queasy sadness head-on, WTWTA’s mixture of fantastic material and corporate kid-focused mandate seem to have caught Jonze off-guard, and he readily loses his characters’ humanity in a soft-focus Karen O flurry.

Enter here the director’s highly publicized toils with Warner Bros. over the tenor of the film (guess who thought it wasn’t kid-friendly enough?). Although these contretemps were supposedly resolved in his favor, whatever concessions were made to either side have resulted in an irresolvable mess.

On the one hand, the film is populated by depressive, endlessly frustrated pre-pubescents, abrasively shot and unsettlingly lit – read: not for kids. On the other hand, all of these taut anxieties get glossed over in favor of aggressive moral-shoving and simplistic plot movements, almost like a movie for adults imitating a movie for children. The cuteness is terminally cute, the sadness overwhelmingly meaningful.

Ultimately, what makes WTWTA close to unbearable is the way in which it unabashedly crams what might have been poignant commentary on the travails of boyhood into a deftly calibrated pop culture package.

Twenty minutes in, the film’s careful pacing unravels neatly as nothing more than the set of intervals between one Karen O song and another. Two-thirds in and you could pretty much cue up the track changes yourself.

It’s as if Eggers’s script had gone and made a mess of unkempt anxiety, and Jonze, faced with the very real prospect of WB’s falling axe, had to make certain the whole project stayed solvent. For Jonze, creative director of VBS.tv, Vice Magazine’s web media organ, the answer was clear: layer on the personal branding, boost the marketability index, and bring in your ex-girlfriend to do the soundtrack.

If only these gleaming meme-ready parts summed to a better whole. More so than a masterpiece of fantastic innovation, Where The Wild Things Are seems vivid proof that your great blog, great soundtrack, great voice actors, and great interactive marketing team do not entail in a great movie. If anything, all they’ve done is cheapen and confuse it.