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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tale of Despereaux (The)

I have a hard time being objective when it comes to mice. I love ‘em, especially the cinematic kind. Me and Mickey Mouse go way back. I’ve spent tons of cash visiting his house in Florida, and when I was a teenager I even worked for him a whole summer at his place in Anaheim, so I feel like we are practically family. That being the case, I do sometimes feel like I should organize some kind of intervention for him because it is so obvious that The Mickster is mainlining steroids or Rodent Growth Hormone because it is definitely not normal for a mouse, even a famous movie star mouse, to be the same size as his best friend, a duck. Even weirder, he is the same size as his pet dog. Oh, and if that’s not bizarre enough for you, how is it that Micky is pals with this talking dog named Goofy but he keeps a mute dog, Pluto, on a leash and makes him live in a dog house chained in the backyard? Now that is downright creepy. Only in Hollywood, Kiddies, only in Hollywood.

The whole clothing thing is very confusing to me, I’ll admit. Mickey wears pants and shoes but no shirt. Donald Duck wears a shirt and hat but no pants or shoes. Goofy wears a full set of clothes and yet Pluto goes stark naked except for his collar. It’s just wrong all around. Everybody should either be dressed or in the buff. Fortunately, the mice denizens in
The Tale of Despereaux get this concept, or most get it anyway, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The Tale of Despereaux fortunately features a fully clad cast of furry mouseketeers living in the creatively (not) place called “Mouseworld,” actually a forgotten storage area in the royal castle of Dor, where they’ve been banished after the King cast out all rodents after a rat accidentally fell into a bowl of soup the Queen was tasting, causing her to have a heart attack and die upon discovering him as an unexpected secret ingredient. Since that time King Boldo (voiced by Stanley Tucci; Kit Kittredge: An American Girl) has spent his every moment grieving and his lovely daughter, Princess Pea (Emma Watson; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), has kept to herself in her tower bedroom, watching the gray skies that have descended over the lands. The people of the Kingdom of Dor have remained depressed and without joy since their Queen has died and the King has lost the will to be happy. He has also forbidden the making of all soup within the kingdom, a terrible inconvenience for a town known throughout the land for its Annual Soup Festival. And as for the mice, their world has its own troubles.

Lester (William H. Macy; Wild Hogs) and Antoinette (Frances Conroy; The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising) have given birth to a son, adorable as can be with oversized ears and an undersized body, but with far more courage than any mouse should have. Despereaux (Matthew Broderick; Bee Movie) is a handful for them both and quickly brings shame upon their house as he is labeled “more man than mouse” because he lacks the quality of fear that makes a mouse a mouse. Because of this, Despereaux is banished to the dark and disgusting Ratworld, far beneath Mouseworld, in the castle’s dungeons and sewers (where no mouse has ever gone and returned). Okay, so here’s where I do have a gripe. Why are these filmmakers so quick to condemn rats? Are rats so much less the rodent than the common mouse? Are writing partners Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi (Alvin and the Chipmunks) that jealous of the success of Ratatouille that they have to diss on the whiskered rabies carriers? I mean, it’s not like they meant to cause The Plague back in the Middle Ages. At least in The Tale of Despereaux, the rat who fell in the Queen’s soup, Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman; Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium), is guilt-ridden and apologetic for his deed, proving that not all rats are scumbags, even if he’s about the only one. The rest of the million or so are horrible, especially their leader, Botticelli (Ciarán Hinds; Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), who really should have been born a slug because his every syllable sounds slimy and evil (or should I say Ee-Vile). I suppose these writers only did the movie about the Chipmunks because they harbor a grudge against squirrels and would have slandered their character if they’d had half a chance.

This way-downstairs drama with the rats is in counterpoint to an upstairs story involving one of the
Princess’ maids, a corpulent miss named Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman; I Could Never Be Your Woman). In her jealous dreams, the girl imagines that she should have been born the Princess instead of a scullery maid and she not only swipes the real Princess’ crown and jewels to enjoy in the privacy of her room, but she plots to take her place. Naturally, this is not a well-formed scheme. How could it be? The line of succession doesn’t easily go straight to one of a hundred palace maids, especially one named Miggery Sow. Interestingly, the animators have done their best to draw Miggery as if she might (dare I suggest it?) have Down syndrome. I know many will rail and say that is ridiculous, but I kept looking at her and it’s all I could think. She has all the stereotypical facial characteristics, and I couldn’t help but believe it would explain her back-story which is quickly flashed across the screen ~ her father is seen giving her away to another family as a baby. Maybe he just didn’t think he could handle such a responsibility. Whatever.

The Tale of Despereaux requires a lot from our little hero, and by the end he must overcome the tyranny of those (gulp!) mouse-eating rats, save the Princess from kidnapping, reunite Miggery with her father and restore her heart to goodness, and finally bring the King out of despair and back to his subjects, who have missed him terribly, and by doing so, ensure that the Soup Festival is reinstated once again. Oh, and, of course, by doing all of these things, he has the opportunity to make his parents proud and earn his way back into Mouseworld. Like I said, that’s asking a lot from a little mouse, and he has to do it all in only 100 minutes.

The animation of The Tale of Despereaux is top notch, though quite different from the Disney/Pixar models of authenticity. The human characters here are drawn in gross exaggeration and are, for the most part, much less attractive than the mice that surround them. Even the rats, decidedly, well, rattier, than the mice are well dressed throughout (although they definitely appear to have certain hygiene deficits), which brings us to that one naked exception I mentioned earlier: the cat. Okay, I get that this is a tribute to the rodent role model Despereaux, but why must the humble house cat be portrayed as some demonic killing machine? A nude demonic killing machine as a matter of fact. Naturally, everybody gets a stylish wardrobe except the kitty. The cat gets bupkis.

Everything about
The Tale of Despereaux is geared to an older child or teen’s sensibility without being in any way hard for younger kids to understand or enjoy. Adults will certainly not be bored with the yarn either and may be inclined to spend part of their time guessing who the famous voices are behind the cartoon faces in this all-star vehicle.

The Tale of Despereaux is definitely a Tale worth enjoying, kids or not. Just don’t tell your cat you’re going.

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