Maurice Sendak's fantasy picture-book was a marvel: an enchanted Träumerei set in a monster-mad forest. Sendak's creatures were and on page still are cuddly, scary, indelible. Jonze, formerly of Being John Malkovich , and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers, a gold-chip novelist who with this and Away We Go is becoming a Hollywood liability, do everything wrong. They come at it like killjoy opera directors wanting to set The Magic Flute in Auschwitz. Little Max (Max Records) runs from a quarrelling home to a remote fantastical island, reached across rough seas in a sailboat. We are bursting to go "Oo-er!" at the awaited ogres, combined with "Coochy-coo" for the cute ones. Instead we go, "What the hell are these?" Performers in manky creature-suits, wearing oversize soft-toy heads, waddle into frame and spout banal, tetchy dialogue. The familiar voices (James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Catherine Keener) somehow add to the sense of cheat and cheesiness.
The scenery is dead-leaved trees in a dun wilderness, with ashy dunescapes for variation. Has the Bomb gone off? Something has blown the plot to pieces. I wasn't sure what the creatures were quarrelling about, but quarrel they do endlessly, sometimes with dirt-clod fights, sometimes with verbal abuse. The Jonze/Eggers message must be that Max's fantasyland duplicates his home life and that maybe mimicry and reflection will exorcise reality. But shouldn't therapy, at least in art for or about childhood, be fun? The book was entrancing. The book deserved better. Happily there is still time, before the world ends, for someone else to film it.
Andrews's mention of Away We Go calls to mind A.O. Scott's review of that movie.