Be careful what you show your kids, because you may be stuck with it.
Earlier this week I wrote about a couple animated movies I'd seen recently that I really enjoyed. Today is the story of one I didn't really enjoy.
As my latest two-birds-with-one-stone scheme, I've been filling the early morning weekend hours when my son wakes up early with animated features I've been meaning to see. Not both weekend mornings, but usually one of the two. I've done this both of the past two weekends.
At two years and three months, my son doesn't yet have the attention span to sit through a whole movie. But I figured it would probably go something like this: He'd watch the first half-hour pretty attentively, then play with his toys for possibly as long as another half-hour before he'd demand a more active form of stimulation. Then I'd catch the movie's remaining half-hour at some point later on, on my own time.
A couple weekends ago I did this with The Tale of Despereaux, which I noticed was streaming on Netflix. Let's call this one of the "minor majors" from the past few years of animation -- a big-budgeted, lavishly vocal-casted movie that nonetheless never rose to the level of essential viewing for cinephiles. As I watched the opening credits, I was struck by just how many big-name actors were involved. Here, just check it out: Matthew Broderick, Emma Watson, Sigourney Weaver, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Kevin Kline, Robbie Coltrane, Stanley Tucci, William H. Macy, Frank Langella, Christopher Lloyd, Ciaran Hinds, Tony Hale and Tracey Ullman. I became exhausted just reading that list.
The movie looks beautiful, breathtakingly so at times. But the thing is, it's got serious problems from a moral standpoint. I'll get into those in a moment. For now, all I need you to know is that my viewing of The Tale of Despereaux went pretty much as I'd expected in terms of my son's attention span. And after I finished it around 11 o'clock that night, I slapped it with a disappointing two-star rating.
Which I thought would have been the end of it. During the half-hour my son did watch the movie, there were several times that he seemed to be wearying of it. "I wanna watch Bob" is what he probably said at least once. Referring of course to his nearest and dearest friend, Bob the Builder.
But then the next day it came for the first time: "I wanna watch Mouse."
And then on another day: "I wanna watch Mouse."
And then another day: "I wanna watch Mouse."
And I assume this morning, because when I got out of the shower, I saw that my wife had put on "Mouse" for him.
Now his rotation consists of about five things: "I wanna watch Bob." "I wanna watch Thomas." (Though this is more rare: He thinks he likes Thomas the Tank Engine, but always bores of him quickly.) "I wanna watch Gromit." (Thank goodness for this, because I could watch Wallace & Gromit for hours on end.) "I wanna watch Sheep." (The TV show Shaun the Sheep, another gem from Aardman.) And of course "I wanna watch Mouse."
I really don't know how this tale of a swashbuckling mouse entrenched itself so much in his psyche, especially since the movie contains a number of parts that I know scare him. (Like I said, I'll get into those in a moment.) I have to conclude that the mere presence of the mice and rats makes it more interesting to him than something like The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which has animal sidekicks but no speaking animal characters. I guess I should be just as glad, because if he woke up one morning and said "I wanna watch Pirates," I'd be out of luck, since my copy of The Pirates! Band of Misfits is resting in the belly of a Redbox kiosk.
But since The Tale of Despereaux is streaming, it's easy to summon it up for him again -- and even easier because it's always close to the front of our Recently Watched queue. And I'm starting to wonder how many 15-minute chunks of this movie I don't like I may be subjected to in the future.
So what's wrong with The Tale of Despereaux? Well, I'll give you a couple examples.
1) The premise is very odd, and bears a very odd (though I think coincidental) relationship to Pixar's Ratatouille, which came out the previous year. To sum it up, there's a kingdom populated by human beings where the biggest holiday of the year is called Soup Day. This is when the kingdom's chef unveils that season's signature broth, ceremoniously served to the royal family before anyone else. A rat (voice of Dustin Hoffman) that just disembarked from a ship in the harbor leans in too far while smelling the soup's delicious aroma, and inadvertently drops from the rafters into the queen's bowl. Assuming that the soup was infested with rats to begin with, the queen drops dead of shock, doing a face plant into the bowl. This sequence of events leads the depressed king to ban the making/eating of soup from the kingdom forever, which has unlikely meteorological side effects -- now there are neither sunny nor rainy days, only a perpetual fog hanging over the kingdom. (Oddly, though, the king does not actually fire the chef, when under the circumstances he might do far worse than that.)
So yeah, weird connection to Ratatouille, right? Only it has to be a coincidence, because a) The Tale of Despereaux would have already been in production when Ratatouille was released, and b) it's based on a storybook that dates back to 2003 anyway.
2) While trying to not be all sunshine and roses -- literally -- the movie aspires to respect the capacity of its audience to appreciate shades of gray. However, this results in a tone that ends up being too dark, and too cynical about human nature -- and mouse nature, and rat nature. I understand why you don't want your characters to be separated into groups of saints and sinners, but the movie has a strange tendency to make its good characters nastier than they need to be, and its bad characters grossly irredeemable. While probably trying to do the opposite, the movie does such things as condemn entire species. Pretty much all the rats are bad except for Hoffman's character, while the mice actually pride themselves on the way they cower and hide in the face of danger, to the extent that they actually cast out the title character (voice of Matthew Broderick) because he doesn't display these traits in sufficient quantity. Then there's the fairly monstrous behavior of the humans, starting with the way the king basically damns his entire kingdom because his wife overreacted to finding a rat in her soup, then continuing to the surprisingly uncharitable behavior of the princess toward others who are different from her. But worst among the human characters is a fat, dumpy but supposed-to-be-sweet servant of the princess, whose malleable mind is warped into all kinds of twisted behavior. The thing that's so disturbing is that the filmmakers think they're going the traditional route with this character, showing us she has a heart of gold -- but it plays out in such uglier fashion than they think.
Now, it would be a common storytelling technique to display these bad traits in order to set up our characters for redemption. But surprisingly few of them get the redemption they seem like they should get. In many cases it's a kind of half-measure redemption, totally unsatisfying in its execution.
3) The movie is just weird in certain ways. The movie is ostensibly "realistic," in the sense that there's no magic -- the only unusual detail is that mice and rats have the ability to speak. There's one glaring exception to this, and it's a character who is essentially a small tornado of food. This character makes the soup along with our human chef, flying around the kitchen like a ghost comprised of ingredients that take the shape of a face, torso and arms before tapering off at the bottom. I see on wikipedia that he is referred to as Boldo, the "soup genie" (voice of Stanley Tucci). He looks like this:
Why a character like this exists in this movie is never explained.
4) There is a scene where the rats capture the princess, Gulliver-style, and march her into their gladiator pit, where they usually have a cat on a chain doing battle with rats and mice. It's never said aloud, but I believe the implication is that the rats mean to eat her. This is just plain wrong.
So now you know what I'm stuck with when I'm stuck with "Mouse."
I guess now we have to figure out what we're going to do. It's easy for parents to fall into the trap of just giving your child what he/she wants. It's the fastest way to make the whining stop, that's for sure.
But despite him having a pretty impressive understanding of the basic functions of a remote control, there's no way at this age that my son can figure out how to call up The Tale of Despereaux without our help. And he's also pretty susceptible to the bait and switch. He says he wants one thing, you tell him you'll give it to him, and then you give him another thing. Two minutes later he's forgotten about the first thing.
So yeah, maybe the time has come to banish "Mouse" from this particular kingdom.