The Tale of Despereaux, Bedtime Stories

Cinema reviews for 5.2.09: a big-eared mouse and Adam Sandler in two family-friendly films
The Tale of Despereaux

Directed by Sam Fell, Robert Stevenhagen. With the voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Ciarán Hinds, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Hale, Frances Conroy, Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Shaughnessy, Sigourney Weaver. Written by Gary Ross, screen story by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, from the book by Kate DiCamillo.

Beautifully drawn, imaginatively composed, I like a whole lot of The Tale of Despereaux but left wanting a whole lot more. Faithful in design – if entirely unfaithful in character, theme, and effect – to the children´s book The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo, the film tries to tell four separate stories that don´t really intertwine till the end in a 90-minute timeframe, with limited success. I wish they would have just stuck with mouse Despereaux, an adorable little creature who should be at the center of his own Tale but has to share far too much screentime with a plethora of secondary characters.

Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen´s film begins with the story of Roscuro the Rat (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), a seafaring rogue who visits the human Kingdom of Dor in time for their annual soup festival. Rats and soup, and we´re instantly reminded of Pixar and Brad Bird´s excellent Ratatouille, though the connection is soon forgotten. Anyway, Roscuro, led by his nose to the castle´s soup kitchen, makes an auspicious debut to the human world when he lands in the Queen´s soup bowl after she takes a sip. The Queen has a heart attack and dies on the spot, Roscuro slips into Ratworld, in the castle´s dungeon, the King goes into morning and bans all soup and rats from the kingdom, and the land plunges into darkness (as narrator Sigourney Weaver awkwardly informs us: “…and the clouds stayed, and stayed, and stayed.” That´s a lot of staying.)

Fifteen minutes into the movie and we´re first introduced to the titular character, as mouse Despereaux is born in Mouseworld, the small world of mice that live inside the castle walls. He quickly grows up to be a rather problematic mouse: he doesn´t cower, defies mousetraps and snatches their cheese, and sketches cats on his notebook. “Are you a man, or a mouse?” the community leaders ask him. Well, he wants to be a courageous knight, like in the story he reads in the castle´s library, and save Princess Pea from the gloom that has fallen over the kingdom. So he´s banished to Ratworld in some of the film´s best sequences, including one where he must face a hungry cat in a gladiatorial-like arena.

Then there´s the story of Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), a poor servant girl who clearly should have been excised from this film; despite having much significance in the novel, her story of adoption, labor, and dreaming of becoming a princess is glossed over in 5-10 minutes here and she has the weakest of connections to the rest of the plotlines. And then there are the rest of the human characters in the castle: the Princess who we never get to know, the mourning King, the castle´s chef (voiced by Kevin Kline) and his assistant, an anthropomorphic talking collage of vegetables voiced by Stanley Tucci. There´s simply too much going on in too short a time frame to do justice to everything, and Despereaux´s tale suffers in that attempt. The movie is sufficiently different from the book in most other ways, so I really wonder why they didn´t axe a couple of the extraneous plotlines and characters.

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So I didn´t really care for the way the story is handled here, but man, this movie is beautiful to look at. It feels like the Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit sketches come to life, and while I love the cartoonish style and pseudo-realism of Pixar´s recent films, this is the first time I´ve seen fully-CGI animation reach the artistically imaginative heights of something like The Nightmare Before Christmas. Although it´s clearly not the most technically proficient animation out there – movement is often too stiff, there´s frequently dead space, and the characters sometimes aren´t as fully matched to their voices as they should be – the film almost deserves a recommendation for the artwork alone.

Likewise, the voice cast is excellent: Broderick is perfectly cast as Despereaux, Hoffman has a lot of fun as Roscuro, and even the smallest roles are performed with gusto, like Frank Langella as the mayor of Ratworld, or Richard Jenkins as Despereaux´s school principal. I could have done without Weaver´s narration, however.

Warning: this is about as intense as a G-Rated children´s film can get, with characters frequently in peril, rats cruising down dungeon rivers in human skulls, and a rather matter-of-fact treatment of death and mourning. It´s been edited down for MPAA approval – there´s a scene early on of a knight taking a mace to the foot that´s clearly missing the expected reaction shot – and not really suitable for the youngest.

Note: The Tale of Despereaux is screening in a Czech-dubbed version at most cinemas, but you can catch it in English (with Czech subtitles) at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům.


The Tale of Despereaux, Bedtime Stories


Bedtime Stories

Directed by Adam Shankman. Starring Adam Sandler, Keri Russell, Guy Pearce, Russell Brand, Richard Griffiths, Teresa Palmer, Lucy Lawless, Courteney Cox, Jonathan Morgan Heit, Laura Ann Kesling, Jonathan Pryce, Nick Swardson, Kathryn Joosten, Allen Covert, Carmen Electra. Written by Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy, story by Matt Lopez.

An entirely bland Adam Sandler comedy – his first family-friendly film – Adam Shankman´s Bedtime Stories has a game cast but a disappointingly weak script. The imaginative titular stories Sandler´s character tells his niece and nephew are relegated to brief five-minute sketches while the rest of the film focuses on such exciting topics as hotel management, city planning, and school closures.

Sandler stars as Skeeter Bronson, janitor and handyman at what was once his father´s hotel; Dad (Jonathan Pryce) made new owner Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths) promise that Skeeter would one day be given the opportunity to manage the hotel when he was forced to sell, but when a new project is announced Skeeter is passed over in favor of brownnosing Kendall (Guy Pearce), who also happens to be dating Nottingham´s Paris Hilton-like daughter Violet (Teresa Palmer). Skeeter takes the night shift looking after his niece and nephew while his sister (Courtney Cox) is away, and he tells them some harshly realistic bedtime stories that reflect his current situation; the unimpressed kids add their own fantasy bits to liven up the proceedings, like insisting a peasant character be given a chance to become king, or having it magically rain gumballs. When the stories seem to start to affect reality, and Skeeter is given a chance to become the new hotel manager, he tries to manipulate the stories to better serve himself. Of course, he doesn´t quite count on the kids´ irreverence in storytelling.

Bedtime Stories has an unusually talented cast for this kind of material, starting with Pryce, Griffiths, and Pearce, and ending with talented comedians like Allen Covert and Nick Swardson in cameo roles. Russell Brand, hilarious in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, shows up as Skeeter´s buddy at the hotel. They´re all wasted. Especially Pearce, who could´ve made a terrific villain but instead portrays someone we don´t care enough about to hate. Sandler returns to his usual persona, but tones everything down for the family-friendly atmosphere to mixed results.

Mostly unfunny, the film tries to draw humor out of repeated sight gags like the kids´ CGI bug-eyed gerbil (an almost scary, mostly sad-looking creature), and their random diversions from Skeeter´s story, like a fat guy on a beach or a violent dwarf.

Still, Bedtime Stories is inoffensive and light-hearted, and kids may like the brief fantasy elements enough to ignore the film´s other faults. The rest of us should stay away.

Please Note: it seems that Bedtime Stories is only screening in a Czech-dubbed version throughout the Czech Republic. Highly unusual for a live-action wide release (even most major animated films open with a Czech-subtitled print or two in Prague), but there you go.


Also: Also opening: This week’s other big release is Cinka Panna (showtimes), a Slovak biopic about the famous Gypsy primadonna directed by Dušan Rapoš, which is screening in Slovak without subtitles.

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