Somehow I doubt a child's imagination includes a shaky hand-held camera. That's my main beef with Spike Jonze's adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, a movie with reviews that are all over the place, but even the naysayers have found much to admire in Jonze's visual aesthetic while reserving the bulk of their ire for co-screenwriter Dave Eggers, whose contribution is reportedly as smug and twee as his literary body of work. Never having read anything by Eggers, I'll have to take his critics' word for it, but the script that he and Jonze fleshed out from Maurice Sendak's children's favorite (and one of mine as a kid) is elegantly structured with resonant thematic echoes. Nine-year-old Max (played by the natural young actor Max Records) is a creator of worlds -- of igloos and forts -- in order to compensate for feelings of powerlessness in the one he lives in. A child of a broken home, he loves his mother (Catherine Keener) to the point of overpossessiveness when she brings a new boyfriend home. A school teacher brings him worry with news about the sun dying out. Following a family squabble, Max flees by boat to an island populated by monsters whom he tricks into making him their king. Representations of people he knows -- and of his untamed id -- the creatures have been compared by more than one review to Dorothy's encounters in the Land of Oz.
The difference, however, is that The Wizard of Oz placed a striking visual demarcation between fantasy and reality, while Where the Wild Things Are is drab on both levels. Doesn't Jonze realize that Max's fantasy life should be more interesting, exciting, and easier on the eyes than his reality? The monsters are awfully downcast too. It's refreshing to see a movie where characters like these are played by giant puppets rather than consisting entirely of special effects, but between their unremarkable adventures and the undistinguished voicework (by James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Chris Cooper, and Lauren Ambrose), these supposedly badassed beasties are disappointingly tepid. In Oz, even the G-rated supporting characters had basic needs and desires. It's unclear what these Wild Things want besides sustenance; and even then they seem far too depressed to eat.
Eggers, along with his wife Vendela Vida, co-wrote the original screenplay for Away We Go, an amiable if ultimately forgettable road comedy directed by Sam Mendes in a rare non-Oscar-baiting mood. The premise contains a dash of autobiography mixed with screwball farce: An unmarried thirtyish couple (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski) find themselves with an unexpected pregnancy, and travel the country to find the right place to start a family. Like many road movies, Away We Go is episodic and filled with a gallery of eccentric characters. I liked best Maggie Gyllenhaal's nightmare of a New Age mom, probably because she's the most vivid creation (more monstrous than anything in Where the Wild Things Are) and she brings the only major sparks out of Rudolph and Krasinski's performances. Not that they're bad by any means. The unconventional casting is a nice change of pace, yet while the two have a quiet chemistry I still found myself wishing for actors with a little more star power. Away We Go passes by harmlessly enough; too bad it doesn't get very far.