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October 13, 2009

Gorgeous ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ roars to the screen

HOLLYWOOD — “Where the Wild Things Are,” the book, is just 339 words long. But in turning it into “Where the Wild Things Are,” the movie, director Spike Jonze has expanded the basic story with a breathtaking visual scheme and stirring emotional impact.

It’s a gorgeous film: This may sound contradictory, but it’s intricate and rough-hewn at the same time, dreamlike and earthy. What keeps it from reaching complete excellence is the thinness of the script, which Jonze co-wrote with Dave Eggers.

The beloved and award-winning children’s book, which Maurice Sendak wrote and illustrated 45 years ago, still holds up beautifully today because it shows keen insight into the conflicted nature of kids — the delight and the frustration that can often co-exist simultaneously.

Jonze gets that, too. There’s always been an inventiveness to his films, a childlike playfulness even amid some of the darker material within “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” With its warm lighting and detailed production design, “Where the Wild Things Are” remains lovingly faithful to the look and spirit of the book but functions assuredly as its own entity.

But Jonze obviously understands the feelings of fear and insecurity — and the inability to articulate them — that the wild things of “Wild Things” represent, and he’s taken the bold step of showing the creatures not through animation but rather by using actual people in giant, furry costumes. The monsters were voiced by an all-star cast and enhanced through digital effects to make the facial features seem more lifelike.

And because talented character actors like James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara and Paul Dano had the benefit of voicing their roles on the same stage at the same time — rather than recording their parts independently of each other, which is standard practice — their interplay feels more organic.

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