Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Gentleman Mouse

Here Be Spoilers!

So if anyone is looking forward to The Tale of Despereaux, stop now.

Despereaux is a tiny mouse with large ears and an unending supply of bravery. He was a children's tale, and then graduated to a big-screen, CGI'd adventure. And although the details in the story of Despereaux and Roscuro the rat have been slightly altered, the general trajectory is the same. There's a mouse who loves a princess and is determined to save her; there is a rat who is hurt by the prejudicial treatment toward rats; there is an abused servant girl; and there is a passive princess who plays the role princesses normally play - look pretty, get in some sort of predicament, and get rescued by the prince.

Aside from the fact that the kingdom of Dor is white-washed, the biggest problem for me was the lack of an actual active role for women. Princess Pea is kindly, and passively accepts her father's soup ban, passively stares out her window, and (though not entirely her fault) is ultimately passive in her rescue - acting only to kick a helmet close to trap a cat after the battle has been waged and won by Despereaux and Roscuro. Mig is a homely, far from intelligent girl who wants to get to the castle, is sold along with her pigs by her uncle to serve as a servant in the castle (passive movement), is used and manipulated by Roscuro during his angry period, locked in the dungeon, is discovered by her grieving father, and ends up back on the same farm at the end of the tale. The Queen of Dor dies as soon as she discovers a rat in her soup. And Despereaux's mother passively accepts her husband's assessment of the Despereaux being brave and talking to humans situation.

Meanwhile, most of the cast of characters - large and small, prominent and background - were men. Some of it is understandable; like the ship's crew. It makes sense for those roles to be men, especially in the historical setting of The Tale of Despereaux. But when even the town dog turned out to be a boy, I was getting more than a little jaded. Most of the townspeople appeared to be men; most of the mice appeared to be men; most of the rats appeared to be men; and the chef and his anthropomorphic fruit and veggie friend are men. It did have a woman narrator, but that is about as far as an authoritative female figure in the film goes. The movie semi-fails the Bechdel Test as well, because although both Pea and Mig share a couple of scenes, nothing that happens between them could be considered much of a conversation. Along with all of this was the assertion that every little girl wants to be a princess; this movie does absolutely nothing to challenge that, and offers no other real opportunity. After all, even Mig was a princess in her father's eyes, so even when she was back on the farm she was still a princess. This was all kind of depressing, though not wholly unexpected.

Not that the movie was a failure; Matthew Broderick as Despereaux was inspired. No matter how old that man gets, he still sounds more than vaguely like a kid. Dustin Hoffman also has a wonderful voice for film, and his Roscuro was inspired. The messages of the film were good as well. Despereaux was always himself, and did not allow any naysayers or unexplained and all important rules (or even threat of banishment) to derail his dreams, ambitions, and his personality. He wanted to be a knight and a gentleman, and he was. Even though he was swimming against society's tide, he was ultimately vindicated. He didn't see the point in scurrying or hiding or being fearful of carving knives and pictures of cats, and - aside from the cat fear, which ultimately kicked in - not being afraid of pictures didn't adversely affect him.

Roscuro is adversely affected, though, by the reactions he receives just because he is a rat. His gentle nature goes unnoticed due to his large rodent and furry exterior. He accidentally sets off the original chain of events by unwittingly falling into the Queen's soup, which ends in her death due to fright and the kingdom being soupless and ratless, along with being sunless and rainless and drab. He wants to be a knight and a gentleman like Despereaux, but unlike the cute and big-eared mouse, his presence evokes screams and things being thrown at him. After his apology to Pea ends with guards chasing him, he becomes slightly twisted and more than a little angry. He becomes tired of what he is dictating people's reactions. And in usual twisted fashion, he uses a simple servant girl to kidnap the princess and delivers her to the rats - which obviously proves her wrong about his nature. But while the movie does warn about the danger of prejudicial mindsets and the harm it does to those subjected to those mindsets, it also talks about forgiveness. Roscuro forgives the princess for her less than hospitable reaction, and both doesn't take his revenge on her but also helps facilitate her rescue. Mig forgives her father for leaving her with an abusive man. And the princess seems to forgive Mig for her part in the kidnapping scheme, as Mig and her father go back to the farm.

Perhaps the oddest message in a children's film was that about authority figures. The king blamed soup and rats for his beloved wife's untimely demise. Because of that, he banned both soup and rats. For reasons not quite made clear in the film, this caused the sun to not want to come out, the color to become muted, and the rain to stop coming as well. He also summarily neglected his daughter and didn't come to help in her time of need after being kidnapped by the rats from the dungeon. Instead, he basically ruined his kingdom's economy and played his music to the detriment of everything around him. The mouse high council is not portrayed in a much better light, having seemingly arbitrary rules and banishing a mouse for not fitting into their society. Despereaux's parents don't faire to well either, willing to give their youngest child up to the high council out of fear that the council would find out in other ways and then punish them as well. But the worst of the authoritative figures is the ruler of Ratworld, who wants to stamp out any love or attraction to light from Roscuro and every other rat. His world is vaguely reminiscent of Rome during its most hedonistic days. Brutality rules, and only by rebelling against the leader either covertly or overtly. Roscuro rescues Despereaux by pretending to want to eat him, and later helps Despereaux rescue the princess by a full-fledged outward rebellion. And the kingdom is only rescued with the chef and his veggie-and-fruit friend begin to make some soup in rebellion of the king's decree.

Overall, the movie was cute, but ultimately worth waiting for it to come out on video.

1 comment:

John said...

It's amazing to consider just how many great children's/all-ages fantasy stories involve mouse protagonists. The few that spring immediately to my mind are Brian Jacques's Redwall series (inn both original novels and adapted animated series/movies,) David Petersen's Mouse Guard series of comics (one of the best comics I've read all year) and Bryan Glass & Michael Avon Oeming's Mice Templar (which I have yet to read.) All of which are likely more entertaining than the Tale of Desperaux, but they involve reading, and who thinks of reading when they're looking for something fun to do?
*grabs a bucket to collect the sarcasm dripping from that last sentence*