A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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January 13, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , ,

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