Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Tale of Despereaux [2008]

Mwahaha, another movie review! It's like I'm a mad scientist, my little siblings are Igor(s?), and Netflix is my weird, Jacob's Ladder-Lighting Thing! [Quick side note here- I used to play bass for Jacob's Ladder Lightning Thing. We even opened for Badfinger at Madison Square, before our drummer got caught puffing. sigh.]
Erm yeah. I'll try to keep a lid on the random nonsense. We also saw Coraline recently, but I decided (for whatever reason) to do Despereaux first. I'll start by saying that I intensely hated this movie when it came out. Intensely. I got the book for my 8th or 9th birthday, and I loved it to death. It was deep, moving, and the story was told in a very interesting, non-linear fashion. Probably one of the first really good books that I fell in love with, (another one being The Princess and the Goblin). For those unfamiliar with Despereaux, he's an unusual little mouse who lives in a castle. He's unusual, not just because of his big ears or his even-by-mouse-standards small size, but because he's not afraid of humans, and would rather read the books in the library than eat them. One day, during a castle escapade, Despereaux meets the lovely young Princess Pea, and considers himself her knight. The kingdom is also in a sad state at the time of the story. The queen died of shock when a rat fell off a chandelier and into her soup. The king dealed with his massive grief the only way he felt he could- outlawing soup. And rats.

Hey buddy, say hello to my
Veggie Chopper!!
That's the premise of the book and movie. However, the movie makes some massive changes to the plot that range from neutral to stupid.
The tamest of the changes is that the female head chef from the book was changed to a man. This isn't one of the things that made me angry about this movie, but I certainly did find it odd.
Then of course, there's everyone's favorite vegetable demon: Boldo. Boldo is a charming little character who was not in the book, and unlike Wybie from the Coraline adaptation, has absolutely no purpose whatsoever, and is annoying as a cactus spine in the cornea.
The real story characters also suffer. I'll talk about the mouse himself in a moment.
Despereaux, darling? You don't think my face is
fat or anything right?
Princess Pea gets the worst treatment of anyone else in the movie. The sweet little girl from the book is now a twitty teenage brat, who does nothing but look sad and yell at people. I suppose they were trying to make her grief for her mother visible. Um, okay, great. I guess. You do realize that there are other ways to show grief? Why did she have to be so pointy? Why was she so cruel? In the book, Princess Pea was compassionate and kind. Not perfect, but she was understanding of others. She also was drawn in a very light way. Her curly hair kind of hovered around her head, and her clothes were simple, giving her a vaguely cherubic look. She wasn't very independent or unique, but she was a good character. Here? I almost wish she had gotten eaten at the rat colliseum.
And yes. You did just hear me say Rat Colliseum. Who read the book and thought "Hm, what would make the dark, amoral dungeons even more terrifying than they already are? OH! A Star Wars: Attack of the Clones style colliseum fight scene! Only instead of lizard monsters, we'll have a cat!"
Back on subject, we also have Miggery Sow. In the book (take a drink everytime I say that phrase), Miggery Sow was a really tragic character, and the things she did that were wrong, she did because she wanted- more than anything in the world- to be a princess. Those motives exist in the book, but her story arc is kind of wrecked in the final act of the movie, because they cut out a defining moment between her and the princess.
The rat Chiaroscuro- here just called Roscuro- is similarly wrecked. Okay, wrecked is kind of a dramatic word here. When I say 'wrecked', I mean that his backstory is changed, and everything else about his character changes as a result. Roscuro is the rat that fell into the queen's soup, and the revulsion he was treated with by the world broke his heart- and it grew back together crooked. In the book, the reason he was in the dining hall in the first place was because, like Despereaux, Roscuro was different. Down in the dungeous there was no light, but Roscuro caught a glimpse of it when a door opened, and from then onward he needed more of it. In the movie, Roscuro wasn't born and raised in the dungeon. He was apparently a sea rat, who was separated from his shipmates and left in the castle. In the movie, Roscuro feels guilt about being the cause of the queen's death, but his heart is broken when he tried to go and apologize to the princess. In true Movie-Princess-Pea fashion, she freaks out and throws stuff at him while melodramatic music and slo-mo milk the moment for all it's worth. Which is not much.
Here's where my reservations about the movie become more than just pouty purist whining. One of the defining themes of the book was Light and Darkness. The themes of light and darkness are lost here, and (as the narrator actually says) is rather a story about misunderstanding.  Call me Puddleglum, but I am sick of misunderstanding stories. Roscuro was misunderstood, he was hurting, and he was not evil. But he did trick an innocent girl into kidnapping the princess so she could be lost in the darkness of the labyrinth like dungeon. He tried hard to be good, but he gave up. Trying to chalk all that up to being 'misunderstood' is kind of a cop-out.
Baby Despereaux probably goes to daycare with Dumbo.
I've been ranting all this time, and I haven't said a word about our little hero, Despereaux.
He's a very different character from the book. In the book, Despereaux was fragile and sickly, very aware of his limitations. Movie Despereaux, as the narrator puts it "Didn't even know he was small. In fact, in his own mind, he was a giant!". Brilliant. Our hero has a God Complex. In the book, Despereaux' idealism was challenged. He questions himself, he is forced to make an effort to believe that he can be the Princess' knight in shining armor. The strength of a person's Faith is tested when that Faith is challenged. In the movie, Despereaux is never challenged. Consequently, he never grows as a character and just feels like your generic "I'm small but I can do big things!" protagonist. Nothing different about him except that he's a mouse with a hat instead of a blue engine with a face.
Oh, and his voice actor is wrong. Don't ask me to explain it, I don't know who I'd have voice Despereaux. Maybe somebody who doesn't sound like a 40 year old when he's supposed to be a little boy mouse?
All right, I know that this review has been really, really, negative. Thanks for bear'in with me, and I actually do have some positive things. Yay!
First of all, this movie does have sound morals, so it's perfectly wholesome for little kids to watch. Unless you find vegetable genies who help chefs cook vegetable soup disturbing. In which case, lock up the tots! Oops, getting off topic. So yeah, good morals, and I like the way the plot flows. The book tells each main character's story one at a time, something that would be hard to pull of in a movie. However, the transitions are actually quite good. And the opening credits were cute. And Sigorney Weaver makes for a halfway decent narrator. There. That's [counts] four things that are good about it. Huzzah...!?

The Verdict: C-
Hey, I was merciful enough to bump it up from D+, give me some credit for being tolerant. The Tale of Despereaux movie might be good for unjaded people who haven't read the book, and also for people who have read the book but aren't picky purists, like me. I dislike it not only because I'm apparently a flaming purist, but because it waters down the original story, leaving out a lot of the darkness. It also makes the Queen's death rather comedic, having her plop face-first into the soup. Classy. The book just said she fell down in her chair. All around, I don't think I'll be watching this again. Well, maybe if I'm babysitting some kids who I need out of my hair...
I think Pascal here sums up how I feel about this movie.

May your kitchen be forever free of Foreign-Sounding Vegetable Demons. Farewell!

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