Movie Review: The Tale of Despereaux

Posted: January 18, 2011 in Cartoon Review, Movie Review, Reviews
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The Tale of Despereaux (2008/ Universal/ Rob Stevenhagen & Sam Fell)

Let’s get the first things out of the way first. I cannot recommend this movie, because it’s not a good movie. That’s just for starters, but we can get that out of the way right now. The reason we’re talking about it though, and the reason I’m reviewing it, is that it could have been a good movie. There is a good movie hiding in this film, however the movie keeps getting in its own way and prevents it from being good. The book it’s based on was a Newberry Award winner (which should make you worry right there) and the movie wants to be worthy of that to the extent that it keeps trying way too hard to be worthy and can’t manage to be good. It’s a shame because on the technical side, the movie is very good in many places. The style and visual flair of the movie is wonderful, but the movie itself is so pretentious and overly serious that you can’t really enjoy watching it. Instead of a point by point review, let’s talk about a few of the problems…

It was then that he realized his version of The Aristocrats didn’t go over terribly well.

Problem #1: The Narration.
Sigourney Weaver provides a narration for this movie that is instantly my go-to example for why you should never, ever include a narration in a movie. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but the writing tears you out of the story every time she starts talking. Instead of allowing you to see where the story is going by the actions of the characters and the general flow of the narrative (more on that later) we’re told what the characters are thinking and beaten over the head with how exactly we’re meant to interpret the characters. Those might all be lines taken straight from the book, but in a book they would work differently. In a book you can take time for an aside like that, and in the book those lines could have been pages or even chapters apart. When they are all thrown at you all at once, they become less a flavoring and more an assault. It feels like the film makers have no confidence in us or our ability to understand what’s going on in the story. It’s really a shame because if they had more confidence in us, and dropped the narration, this would have been a much better movie.

Once upon a time, there was a dog… and then it died. BANG! Now gimme my Newberry Award!

Problem #2: Muddled Story
For a movie called The Tale of Despereaux, the main character takes an awfully long time to show up on screen. A full nineteen minutes passes before we ever see or hear of our titular character. This was a huge problem when watching the movie because the advertising for the movie had it that this was a movie about a fearless little mouse who went on an adventure. It isn’t. It’s four different stories, sort of running together with the main character being a very weak lynchpin attempting to hold the whole thing together. I’m not saying that a kid’s movie can’t have a b or c plot, but the side plots end up taking over the movie. Despereaux’s story is actually the least interesting and least explored of all the stories in the movie. It doesn’t feel like he has any actual motivation or reason to be in the movie except for the fact that he’s the main character. The story itself it terribly muddled and unfocused, and doesn’t take time to develop any of the multitude of characters they introduce to the tale. The story doesn’t flow well, there isn’t a strong narrative to this thing.

No idea who this guy is.

Problem #3: Who is that now?
I have no idea what the name of the evil villain rat in this movie is. The one that looks like Max Shrek in Nosferatu. I don’t think they ever give him a name and I have no idea who he is supposed to be besides the leader of the rats. He’s not the only one like this in this movie. Almost no one has any real definition to them, they’re barely one dimensional stock characters. I didn’t really care about a single person in this movie, which is a shame because it wouldn’t have taken much to endear me to any of them. As a result we don’t really care about the story because we don’t care about anyone in it.

Seriously, what the hell is up with this guy?

Problem #4: What The… ?
There are so many things in this story that just refuse to make any kind of sense. The king decides to outlaw soup, which has an explanation but really. If you outlawed something like soup, you wouldn’t be king for very long. He also outlaws rats, and the rats seem to take their banishment rather well. While the narration mentions that you might as well try to outlaw flies, or Monday morning, the rats seem to understand that they are verboten and hide away from humans. Instead of just being rats, they follow the law for some reason. With soup outlawed, it stops raining and the sun stops shining and all manner of things go wrong in the kingdom. Again, if this were a result of the king outlawing soup, he would stop being king pretty quickly. The local barons would rise up and tip the balance. Then you’ve got the man made of vegetables, who I think is supposed to be the spirit of the soup, but he’s got so little screen time and so little point that it’s hard to tell. He shows up once vanishes for an hour, then shows up again for three minutes before vanishing again never to be seen again. Let’s not even talk about the fact that this kingdom’s answer to pest control seems to be twenty fully armored knights, instead of say… a cat. There are so many things here that just make no damn sense that it ruins what enjoyment you might get from this movie. There are also a lot of pointless scenes that come to nothing, but lots of movies have those and we don’t complain too much. I’m not excusing that, but I’m not going to go on about it.

And now, a moment of awesome.

Problem #5: Celebrities
Did Dustin Hoffman really need to be in this movie? What about Mathew Broderick? Emma Watson? These people only serve to distract from the tale because you’re too busy trying to remember why that voice sounds familiar. I’ve never understood the need to put known names in cartoon movies. There are very few cartoons where having a known celebrity voice has actually helped at all, and that was more because they were the right actor for the part rather than being a known name. This sort of stunt casting just gets in the way of enjoying what should be a good movie. I will say that Mathew Broderick does a pretty good job and I actually believe his voice with that drawing.

See that dog? This being a Newberry Award book. That dog probably dies by the end.

Problem #6: Pretension
I mentioned in the introduction that this movie wants very badly to be worthy. In fact I said that it wants so badly to be worthy that it gets in the way of anyone actually enjoying it. There is a terrible pretension running through this thing. It’s so full of its own sense of being an important movie that has something really Important to say that it makes any viewer over the age of five shift in their seat with irritation. All the things that they want to get across could have been done with more grace and less banging over the head. The narration is a big part of the problem, but the rest of the movie is far from blameless in this department. It’s such a pretentious film that it ends up being sort of humorless and annoying.

Flower! No joke, just a flower.

So I’ve beaten on the main six problems, are there any things the movie did right? Well, it looks quite nice. That’s damning with faint praise, but it is a lovely looking film with an interesting and individual artistic style to it. The main story isn’t horrible, and with a little better grasp of what they were doing it might have been really good. A little more focus, a little more work and it might have been a new classic. This is a missed opportunity and wasted effort as it stands. Instead of being a beloved classic, it’s just gone down as another half-effort kid’s movie that no one saw.

Official Score:
-2 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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