The Tale of Despereaux (2008) - Pick
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) -Pass
New this week on DVD, The Tale of Despereaux is a gratifyingly sincere fairy tale — not a fractured fairy tale, not an ironic deconstruction of the genre in the mode of Shrek, Enchanted and Happily N’Ever After — but a genuine morality tale.
Broadly adapted from the Newbery Award-winning 2003 novel by Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux makes some odd storytelling choices, resulting in a trippy and uneven film in which the kingdom of Dor celebrates the annual Soup Day festival like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, rain magically stops falling when the queen dies, and a strange soup genie helps the royal chef create new soups.
But in Despereaux Tilling (Matthew Broderick), a tiny mouse with big ears, the story has an old-fashioned hero who is serious about honor, devotion and courage. Forget Prince Caspian’s Reepicheep; Despereaux is the chivalrous mouse for me (on the screen, I mean).
Despereaux feels like a storybook rather than an action movie — a story about longing, imagination, resentment, contrition, forgiveness and redemption. The strange and wonderful quality of DiCamillo’s story is honored, if imperfectly.
Also new on DVD, Scott Derrickson’s The Day the Earth Stood Still isn’t a bad film. A well-intentioned remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic about an enlightened visitor from the heavens with a message of inspiration and warning, it represents a credible effort to honor the original, while contributing something new.
Eventually, though, the absurdities pile up. I like the scenes depicting the best military and scientific minds at a loss in totally unprecedented situations. But then comes an implausible military assault on the alien presence by an arrogant colonel, without even any clarity why this mustachioed yahoo is in charge in the first place.
Then, when Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) is ready to write off Earth’s leadership based on his experiences with U.S. officials, Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) says, “Those aren’t our leaders! Let me take you to one of our leaders!”
Who does she bring him to? John Cleese’s Professor Barnhardt, a caricature of professorial enlightenment. Huh?
When we learn Klaatu’s mission — not to save humanity from itself, but to save Earth from humanity — things really stop making sense. He seems to value intelligent life; does he mean to wipe us out and wait for something else to evolve? And if “nothing ever truly dies,” why does his mission matter anyway?
I don’t object to Klaatu’s basic message. It’s just a letdown — sort of like having the Pope come to your house only to check your smoke detector batteries. You’d like to think he had more on his mind.
CONTENT ADVISORY: The Tale of Despereaux: Moderate animated menace and scariness; some stressful family situations. Fine family viewing. The Day the Earth Stood Still: Sci-fi disaster footage and occasional violence; a scene of slimy alien metamorphosis; a few instances of profanity and crass language. Teens and up.