Friday, December 19, 2008


First a little background info, courtesy of Amazon. Here is what they say about the author and the fairy tale book, which is the basis of the movie 'The Tale of Despereaux':

"Kate DiCamillo, author of the Newbery Honor book "Because of Winn-Dixie", spins a tidy tale of mice and men where she explores the "powerful, wonderful, and ridiculous" nature of love, hope, and forgiveness. Her old-fashioned, somewhat dark story, narrated "Dear Reader"-style, begins "within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse." Despereaux Tilling, the new baby mouse, is different from all other mice. Sadly, the romantic, unmouselike spirit that leads the unusually tiny, large-eared mouse to the foot of the human king and the beautiful Princess Pea ultimately causes him to be banished by his own father to the foul, rat-filled dungeon.

The first book of four tells Despereaux's sad story, where he falls deeply in love with Princess Pea and meets his cruel fate. The second book introduces another creature who differs from his peers--Chiaroscuro, a rat who instead of loving the darkness of his home in the dungeon, loves the light so much he ends up in the castle& in the queen's soup. The third book describes young Miggery Sow, a girl who has been "clouted" so many times that she has cauliflower ears. Still, all the slow-witted, hard-of-hearing Mig dreams of is wearing the crown of Princess Pea. The fourth book returns to the dungeon-bound Despereaux and connects the lives of mouse, rat, girl, and princess in a dramatic denouement.

Children whose hopes and dreams burn secretly within their hearts will relate to this cast of outsiders who desire what is said to be out of their reach and dare to break "never-to-be-broken rules of conduct." Timothy Basil Ering's pencil illustrations are stunning, reflecting DiCamillo's extensive light and darkness imagery as well as the sweet, fragile nature of the tiny mouse hero who lives happily ever after. (Ages 9 and older) --Karin Snelson"

Several points about this precis: 1) note that this is a story about grief and forgiveness, and a bit about redemption as well that is written for 9-12 year olds, not small children. The same can be said for the movie, the message of which will go right over the heads of the kids, and, at least in movie form develops in too slow and plodding a fashion to keep younger children's attention; 2) Note that we are talking about four little books and stories, which while inter-related are nevertheless not a continuous narrative. And herein lies the basic problem for the movie-- it tries to turn all four into one narrative, with far too much lead in material and far too little climax and denouement. It's too bad because this could have been a wonderful movie that focused on fewer topics to greater effect.

Now for some facts about the movie. It is G rated, so deemed suitable for everyone, though there are some scary rat scenes in the movie. Secondly the movie seems quite long (and by children's movie standards today it is long, some 2 hours) and it offers not enough humor or really compelling action to keep the story humming along in a cheerful way. It has some recognizable voices as well-- Sigourney Weaver as the narrator, Dustin Hoffman as the lead Rat--Chiaroscuro, and Matthew Broderick, as well as others. And to offer more good news, whilst the drawing of the Sow story characters makes them look like refugees from Shrek, the drawing of Despereaux is, in equal turns charming and beautiful, and his character is equally winsome. But alas even he cannot rescue this movie, and there is honestly not enough of him in the movie. Too little time is also spent on the chef and his soup, and the one really comic character in the story-- the walking V-8 collection of vegetables that is the chef's muse. For the Kingdom of Dor, Soup day, had even eclipsed Christmas, but alas instead of this movie ending with a grand celebration of soup and food, ala Ratatouille, we are left with king rat drifting out to sea. In some ways this is a metaphor for this whole movie--- somewhat adrift. It has however some fine elements.

For one thing, Di Camillo writes beautifully, and so the narrator's bits bring us something we seldom see in children's movies these days--- excellent prose of the 'once upon a time variety', even if occasionally somewhat antique. For another thing, the exploration of powerful emotions, including fear, grief and forgiveness, are notable themes, too seldom explored in children's tales. Di Camillo has some good things to say on these subjects, including the notion that forgiveness is more powerful than grief. More time however is given to the courage vs. fear tandem, under the banner "are you a man or a mouse", and clearly Despereaux is not your ordinary mouse--- he will not scurry or cower, even when taught to do so. He has an insatiable curiosity, and indeed he fancies himself a gentleman. The subliminal message of 'you can be what you can imagine yourself to be' can only be pushed so far, because in the end, Despereaux remains a mouse who does not marry a princess, and Ms. Sow remains a working girl, who does not become a princess, despite her dreams. Living happily ever after in this movie is not about achieving one's dreams, but settling for less.

I must admit to having had great hopes for this long advertised movie in a post-Ratatouille world. Alas, it turned out more of a tale of "who moved or stole my cheese" that I was looking and hoping for. The reviews of this movie are equally divided, and not surprisingly so, since there is so little good Christmas fare out there this year. Kate's earlier story turned movie 'Because of Winn Dixie' was a better film for sure.

My word to you is, this may be the best family movie to see this Christmas, and it has some delightful elements and will do no harm, but it will leave you longing for more--- sort of like Despereaux himself.


Brendan said...

I took my 2 year old son to see Despereaux this afternoon after church and we both enjoyed it very much. The art was amazing -- definitely not a clone of Pixar/RenderMan computer animation. My son was engaged throughout the movie (with a break for potty and popcorn somewhere in the middle).

I especially like the virtues the little mouse embraced, even when it meant going against the grain in MouseWorld.

Compared to other recent animated films, I thought it was about on par with Bolt and much better than Madagascar 2.

EricW said...

I took our 12-year-old and 5-and-one-half-year-old granddaughters, and they both thoroughly enjoyed the movie. (So did I.) The 5-year-old clapped at the end while wearing a big grin. I think the reviews and reviewers who say it's too long and too slow and too "deep" for young children may cause some young children and their parents to miss a movie they'll wish they'd seen.