Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux

Posted on Wed, Dec 17, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The Tale of Despereaux
Director: Sam Fell, Robert Stevenhagen
Screenwriter: Sam Fell, Robert Stevenhagen
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Tracey Ullman, Emma Watson, Tony Hale, Frances Conroy
Release Date: 2008-12-17
Rated: G
Genre: Film

My wife summarized the plot as: “A small mouse is supposed to be afraid, but he’s not afraid.” And I’m afraid I don’t have too much more to add. Despereaux (voiced by Broderick), to elaborate, is a super tiny mouse with decidedly Dumbo-ish ears who, despite the pressures of his tiny mouse society, refuses to cower or run away. In a fighter pilot, maybe, unflinching fearlessness could be a desirable trait, but in an undersized mouse it’s dropping the soap in the natural-selection shower.

Despereaux’s refusal to hide from flashcards of carving knives and kitty cats makes him a problem student, and his parents are horrified by his idiotic bravery. The moral, obviously (and it’s explicitly stated in case you don’t pick up on it) is that no one is born afraid; we’re all conditioned to fear the unknown by the government and our parents and our educational system. A nifty idea, sure, but the film’s lack of nuance is ridiculous. Some truly horrible things (OK, most horrible things) have been done out of ignorant fear, to be sure, but fear is also a useful response, evolved to keep small mice out of cats’ intestines, and your kids out of the creepy neighbor’s fruit cellar.

This generation of American bed-wetters, don’t forget, will be inheriting, among other horrors, an unpayable debt to a country that hates us, and a world in which polar bears are either extinct or have evolved gills and snack on snorkelers. Your kids will have plenty to be afraid of, and they deserve better advice than a cartoon mouse’s used-up platitudes about bravery and honor, or narrator Sigourney Weaver’s sermonizing.

I haven’t read Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry-award-winning children’s chapter book, but this adaptation, which offers tedious explanations in place of character development or immersive storytelling and glosses over some of the story’s darkest, scariest elements (child abuse, for example), seems insultingly dumbed-down. The film’s fantastic storybook animation coupled with its lack of conflict, and extremely low-key action sequences might make the DVD visual Nyquil, pleasant for pre-naptime viewing, but as an indoctrination and survival guide for young progressives, it’s unpersuasive and inadequate.

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