A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 319 – The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux – January 13th, 2011

It has been years since I read the book this movie is based on. It won a Newbery Medal, which is usually considered a rather big deal in children’s literature. I haven’t agreed with every winner of the Newbery (Crispin: The Cross of Lead was a big snore to me) but in general the winners are excellent books. And I liked the book this movie is based on. I enjoyed it and thought it was a well told new fairytale type story, with a brave mouse and a princess and a kingdom in mourning. But as I’ve mentioned, there are lots of new children’s books all the time and going back to reread something is a luxury. So it’s been years. But I’m pretty sure there was no walking vegetable man in the book.

Seriously. Did Stanley Tucci just really want to be part of this project and so they made him a part? I don’t remember Boldo at all. I think I’d remember a walking vegetable spirit who lives in a cookbook. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. And much as I enjoy Stanley Tucci, and great as it was to see clips in the making of short showing him and Kevin Kline acting out their scenes together, Boldo just doesn’t fit for me. And I really did enjoy the original story, but even with the years in between my reading and now, I can tell it’s been much changed and something seems to have been lost.

The book, if I recall, is divided into four little stories that come together to tell the overall tale, woven together. It has the effect of making it like a mini epic (which I realize is a contradiction in terms, but I can’t think of how else to express it). Specifics are long gone from my memory, but I was left with the impression of something grand, but something grand told through little details and little characters. And I can tell that the movie was attempting to do that. It tried really hard. And I do very much like the mouse village and the rats in the dungeons. There’s just something a little off, and I have to assume it has to do with how all the various bits and pieces of story have been incorporated into a single linear plot. I get why it was done – non-linear plots can be a hard sell in book format, let alone a children’s movie – but the way the story was told was so integral to its mood and tone.

Then too, it’s obviously missing a lot of narrative detail. This is a thing for books made into movies. If the book relies heavily on its narrator to be a storyteller, then there has to be a way to incorporate that into a movie. Either the narrative has to be incorporated into the visuals and dialogue and whatnot, or there has to be a narrator, or some combination. In this movie they kept some narrative voice, done wonderfully by Sigourney Weaver. And I think that was a good direction to go in, but it ended up feeling like the narration was a means to truncate bits I wanted to see. For example, there’s a storyline with a servant, Mig, and her father. And it’s rather key to Mig’s personality and character arc and Mig is rather key to the whole plot of a kidnapped princess held captive by rats. But instead of using the medium of film, which is visual, to show us Mig’s background and relationships, we have it all spelled out to us by the narrator over a few basic scenes of Mig as a girl and as a baby that only reveal fact, not emotions. Still, I would rather have the narration than not, because it does help the story to maintain some of its tone. I just wish a better balance had been made.

For all my nitpicking, however, I do think it is an absolutely lovely movie that managed to keep a lot of what made the book fun. Despereaux is a fantastic unlikely hero – a brave knight in the body of a tiny mouse with huge ears. He really is the heart and soul of the story, as he should be, what with his name in the title. I did love his backstory, drawing cats in his schoolbooks and not cowering at the sight of a carving knife. He was well done, which makes me very happy indeed. Roscuro, whom I recall as being a little different (and whose character arc is also spelled out to us) was great too, played nicely by Dustin Hoffman. Really, I loved the whole cast and I greatly enjoyed the visuals (really, they’re gorgeous) and I wish I’d loved the movie as a whole, but while it’s perfectly nice, it’s missing something. Garlic, perhaps. Except I think the vegetable soup knight had some, so maybe it had too much.

January 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Tale of Despereaux

January 13, 2011

The Tale of Desperaux

I thought about reading the book this was based on before watching the movie. As I watched it tonight I frequently wished that I had, because there is a decidedly story-book tone to the movie and I’m curious to know how much of it comes from the book and how much of it is the adaptation. Apparently it is a pretty radical re-imagining, with the same character names and world but altered motivations and story. At least judging from all the times Amanda exclaimed “It didn’t go like that!”

Much of the fairy tale feel comes from the periodic narration. From the very start of the movie there’s this “once upon a time” vibe. The mellifluous tones of Sigourney Weaver introduce us to the kingdom of Dor which is known above all else for the quality of its soup. It is a world filled with talking mice and rats, where a princess, a scullery maid, a dungeon keeper, an exiled rat and a brave and noble mouse all find their lives intertwined.

The actual storytelling in the movie is a little awkward. The bits where Sigourney breaks in on the action and dispenses pearls of wisdom or explains what’s going on are simultaneously the best and the worst parts of the movie. The best because they are filled with pretty sentiment and tweak the tropes of the fairy tale genre (these are what I imagine must be bits closer to the book, though I have no way of knowing) and the worst because they are the very epitome of telling rather than showing. At times I kind of wished that instead of watching a computer generated animated movie filled with action, adventure, and a giant cast of beloved actors I could just listen to Sigourney Weaver read the book to me. She has a comforting, pleasant voice and I think it would be a delight to get a bedtime story from her.

This is a big animated movie, though, and so I have to be satisfied with that instead. As I implied above the cast is amazing. The opening credits were, for me as a movie lover, like a little treat. I knew, of course, that Matthew Broderick played Despereaux, but every other name that came after his was a pleasant surprise. Dustin Hoffman, Robbie Coltrane, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, Emma Watson, Tracy Ullman, Christopher Lloyd… every one of them is a great actor and all of them are featured in other favorite movies in our collection. (Many of which we’ve already reviewed.) I suppose that’s the drawing power of a popular prize-winning book – it can draw all kinds of great talent to it from all over the world.

The other thing that struck me was the extremely intricate and detailed production design. Particularly when you are introduced to the mouse and rat worlds within the walls of the castle there is just such a vast wealth of clever detail that I found myself obsessing over it. The mouse schoolhouse carved out of a set of hardcover books. The fish skeletons hanging in the rat city. The re-purposing of human items to make up everything in both worlds (such as the spoon used for a slide in the mouse playground.) These things, which are only on screen for a few seconds in most cases, show a playfulness and level of attention not often lavished on a simple animated movie.

Then there is the storybook world of the tales of chivalry that Despereaux reads in the library. They have an animation style all their own and they were brilliantly cool to watch. Like the rest of the movie they were rendered in computer generated 3-D, but they have a two dimensional paper cut-out look to them. The way they’re animated it looks more like a pop-up book than like a movie – simply mesmerizing. I could have watched a whole movie done in that style.

I did enjoy watching this. It captures a kind of story book feel and it has a kind of respect for its source genre while at the same time poking fun at some of the fantasy cliches it uses for inspiration. It has a beautiful look to it. But more than anything else it made me want to get the book and read that, because I can’t help feeling that the book is inevitably going to be better.

January 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment