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Where the Wild Things Are (PG)

These things are just a bit tame

Can a bad adaptation also be a good film? An answer of sorts is provided by Where the Wild Things Are, which the director Spike Jonze and the novelist Dave Eggers have adapted from Maurice Sendak's cherished children's adventure. Verbose where the book was tantalisingly suggestive, and intellectualised where it felt primal, the picture is about as close to a betrayal of its source material as the filmmakers could have got without actually burning Sendak's work and dancing a jig on its ashes.

But if you accept from the off that Where the Wild Things Are is unfilmable (at least without, say, a Quest for Fire-style vocabulary of grunts instead of language) then Jonze's version still has its own virtues. Just don't expect the movie of the book.

Max (played by Max Records) is an energetic, flush-cheeked but discontented lad of about ten years old. One night, he flees his family home after biting his mother (Catherine Keener), vanishing into the mist in his raggedy wolf costume, its stiff whiskers sticking out like electrical wires. He stumbles upon a boat, and sails it to a remote island. This turns out to be home to a community of hairy, lumbering beasts that squabble interminably, hurl trees around, and sleep in Shredded Wheat-like cocoons that would look spiffy in the Saatchi Gallery or on Andrew Neil's head.

Like any good colonialist, Max immediately declares himself king. What never becomes clear is the nature of the beasts over whom he rules. Their low-level bickering, besides being torture on the ear, has the ring of the playground about it, but the rivalries and jealousies hint at some heavy-duty baggage. Judith (voiced by Catherine O'Hara), who has the horn of a rhinoceros protruding from her snout, berates the droopy-nosed Ira (Forest Whitaker), whom you might take for her husband, or some other kind of significant beastie, if the film could decide whether they were adults or children. And what could have happened to make Carol (James Gandolfini), the dour-faced mammoth who might have been evicted from Sesame Street, so hostile to the simian temptress KW (Lauren Ambrose)? Perhaps it was that age-old story - Wild Thing meets Wild Thing, Wild Thing loses Wild Thing, Wild Thing gets drunk and sleeps with Wild Thing's best friend.

The symbolic game that Jonze and Eggers are playing here is blindingly obvious. Carol and KW are surrogates for Max's estranged parents - that much is clear long before Max finds sanctuary in KW's belly, and is then "reborn" in a varnish of amniotic fluid.

In restaging his parents' separation in monstrous form, Max is working through the trauma of their divorce. Only this time, when Max eventually sails home from the island, it is he, rather than his father, who gets to do the leaving.

The Wild Things in Sendak's book were forces of fearsome primitivism, but here they converse in the jargon of childcare manuals and West Coast therapy sessions, opining that "We forgot how to have fun" and "Happiness isn't always the best way to be happy". There's no jeopardy when the beasts threaten to eat Max. The worst they could do would be to whinge him to death.

Were it not for the tameness of the Wild Things, the movie would have the makings of an anarchic classic. Lance Acord's hand-held camerawork has an on-the-hoof energy: the constant movement in the frame makes the images appear to be breathing. Another masterstroke was the decision to shoot on location, placing the film firmly in the grand, raw tradition of Peter Brook's Lord of the Flies and Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion (the picture was shot along the coast and in the woodlands of outer Melbourne). And it is somehow poignant to see the non-CGI monsters themselves bounding and traipsing through the dunes and forests. The setting sun (it always seems to be dusk) gives them an orange glow; leaves fall on their shoulders, and the wind makes patterns in their fur.

On the soundtrack, Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs delivers tribal incantations that could be mistaken for cheerleading chants. When Carol and the gang put a sock in it, you can also hear nature seeping in: the wind, the waves, the insects. But the film never quite recaptures the zing of its first 20 minutes, a tender précis of Max's daily life in which he daydreams, spins stories, throws tantrums and crafts himself a snug little womb in the snow. How ironic that the most other-worldly images are to be found right there in Max's neighbourhood; in short, where the Wild Things aren't.

“Where the Wild Things Are" is released on 11 December

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George