Judge Clark Douglas is going to eat you up, he loves you so!
"I don't care."—Pierre
Most folks associate the name Maurice Sendak with his classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are. Though that 20-page gem remains his most lasting achievement, Sendak has authored and illustrated dozens of additional titles. Riding on the buzz of Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are theatrical film is this underwhelming DVD, offering animated versions of Where the Wild Things Are…and 5 More Stories by Maurice Sendak.
Most of these animated shorts were produced in the 1970s and 1980s. The first two stories on the disc ("Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Night Kitchen") are given a fairly traditional presentation, as Sendak's images are lightly animated as narration and music is provided by Peter Schickele (once known as P.D.Q. Bach). As one of many who loved Where the Wild Things Are as a kid, I was somewhat disappointed with the presentation. The animation lacks any sort of fluidity, making much of the imagery blurry and messy. The viewer never really has time to appreciate Sendak's iconic drawings; there's simply too much emphasis on constant movement. Schickele's music is also a slight misfire, creating a sort of playful modernity that never quite accentuates the emotional core of the story.
Even so, the story remains affecting in its own direct and simple manner, regardless of presentation errors. Similar themes are explored during In the Night Kitchen, a very peculiar story about a young boy who dreams of an adventure that is by turns both sinister and exciting. Young Mickey wanders naked (the drawings are surprisingly frank and explicit for a children's story, as full frontal and rear nudity is included) through a world in which three fat bakers are attempting to put him in their pie. Those expecting nothing but sweet innocence on this disc may be startled when the come to this entry (it's no surprise that the book has been included on numerous "most controversial children's books" lists).
The rest of the stories are disappointingly presented as songs performed by Carol King. The unimaginative tunes have a vaguely improvisational feel, giving an unnecessary sing-along quality to stories that aren't really asking for it (just because the sentences rhyme doesn't mean the story should be presented as a song). The best of the rest is probably Pierre, the delightfully surprising story of a kid who doesn't care about anything. The moral is to "care," which sounds typical for a children's story until you consider the context. Sendak isn't asking children to care about others in terms of empathy or sympathy, but rather just to give a damn about the things that happen in life. It's an anti-apathy tale, and as such it seems more resonant than ever today.
The other three installments are Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup With Rice, andOne Was Johnny, more safe and predictable stories that teach kids about letters, months, and numbers respectively. They're fine, but feel like filler designed to pad the running time of the disc (the case claims the disc runs "approximately 54 minutes," but it's actually closer to 40 minutes total).
The disc is not particularly pleasant to look at or listen to, as these animated shorts are messy and grimy. Dirt is a particularly big problem and there are plenty of scratches, flecks and grit. The audio is damaged and wobbly throughout, suffering from distortion and gratingly off-key moments in the music. The only extra is a very brief archival interview with Sendak, who basically says that he things Where the Wild Things Are is good but that In the Night Kitchen is his most intensely personal effort.
The disc isn't horrible, but I also have a hard time suggesting that parents should spend their hard-earned 10-15 bucks on it. I would recommend just picking up these stories in book form (particularly Where the Wild Things Are and Pierre), but if you're looking for a 40-minute babysitter, I suppose you could do worse. Still, some parents may want to determine whether or not the disturbing In the Night Kitchen is appropriate for their kids before showing them the disc.
Guilty of failing to give these classic stories a genuinely exceptional (or
even satisfying) presentation.
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