Friday, December 19, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux

“Reader, you must know that an interesting fate awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.”

There is a skill to adapting a book into a movie. The rise and fall of action in a series of chapters often doesn’t translate directly to screen and the necessary beats of a feature film.

The Tale of Despereaux isn’t a bad film. It’s got an all-star cast, sharp animation, and a lovable protagonist. It also has too many characters, a convoluted plot, and a less than satisfying ending.

It’s 20+ minutes into the film before we even meet young Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a small mouse with a big heart who takes instantly the notion of chivalry. Despereaux doesn’t fit into a society that wants mice to cower and run; he dreams of adventure, and even doodles drawings of cats.

Events involving a rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) years before have led to the banishment of both rats and soup in the kingdom. It is into this darker world Despereaux discovers a sad young princess (Emma Watson) and pledges to bring light back to the kingdom.

Now, there’s more than enough there to weave a plot for an animated film. Sadly the writers aren’t willing to let go of subplots from the book which keep getting in the way. There’s a dungeon guard, there’s a creepy Single White Female serving maid (Tracey Ullman), and there’s the on-again off-again narration by Sigourney Weaver making the whole enterprise feel more like someone is reading us a hastily condensed abridged version of the tale than showing us a finished feature film.

Fans of the book may also be a bit dispointed at changes to some of the characters. Roscuro is taken from the antagonist of the piece to a flawed but ultimately redeemable character and Botticelli, instrumental in the final act of the book, is one of the few characters not included here.

I also must discuss two important ideas which are presented but, sadly, neither developed nor resolved. The first is the conflict between individuality and conformity to societal norms (Desperaux’s ideals vs. those of the mouse community). And the second is a rather sly line about the absurdity of consensual crimes (after the King declares soup illegal). I applaud the film for including two high concepts like these (and coming out on the right side of each) but neither is adequately explored as the adventure and plodding plot take over instead. It’s too bad we don’t get more development along these lines instead of repeated scenes involving a rat gladiator arena and a crazy maid.

Young children, like those in the audience of the screening I attended, might grow bored with the somewhat unfocused tale (as will some adults), though older and more patient children may have an enjoyable enough time. It’s an okay animated action-adventure which feels like it should have been much more. The Tale of Despereaux may be a great book, but this movie isn’t good enough to make me want to find out

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