Friday, January 16, 2009

The Tale of Despereaux

Egggghhh! Aggggh!! This film was creepy. Creeeeeepy.

I know Decent Films and American Papist gave it good reviews.

But, me? Paragon of good taste in movies? D- or even an F.

Why? Well - personal culpability is removed from the characters in this film, and I'm with Aristotle when he said (and I paraphrase) that we praise or blame men because we believe them to be responsible for their actions. Eliminate the blame, you eliminate the praise as well.

In our post-modern society, there is a fascination with the nature versus nurture question. Are we slaves of our genes? Of society? Of what we eat for breakfast? An interesting dynamic plays out in this film - everyone "knows" that, by nature, rats are X. But the film suggests that their nature is only X because that is what they have been nurtured to be: they are a product of their environment. Likewise with other main characters who do wicked things.

Hence, evil actions are the result of something hurtful in an environment that is the propels the characters to a hurtful (I use the term the movie uses) course of action. The king hurts the people, land, and animals. So what's a hurting animal to do but hurt others? It's not really their fault, afterall! And that creepy deranged maidservant who betrays the princess and locks her away in a dungeon? Well! The princess had - unintentionally - hurt her feelings. Whew. Glad those actions were explained and great to know that the maidservant was really good on the inside! That maidservant had me worried when she was menacing the princess with a butcher's knife! She was just hurting, you know.

For what it's worth: there is an element of truth in all this - actual sin can be traced back to original sin. But that doesn't mitigate our culpability. We don't sin because we were sinned against - we sin because...well...we want to (but not the good kind of nature-driven want).

But in the end, there are no bad guys. There are just hurting people. Such a view of the nature of sin is, I'd argue, highly contrary to reality and subversive to Church teachings. And, ironically, this renders any heroism on the part of Despereaux rather...flat. How can you be heroic in the face of evil if it isn't...evil? How can you be for truth and justice and honor if they're only helpful constructs that help you visualize the opposite of particular characteristics of the hurt-person? For the untruthful person is a product of something that's hurt him in his environment - likewise the unjust and the dishonorable. Now - Despereaux is a likable mouse, particularly in relief against the other characters, because he is courageous, honorable, etc. He is a hero! But within the film, that has no real meaning. So while HE is being a hero (in the viewer's eyes), he is not heroic according to the narrative.

Additionally, there is also something profoundly inverted about the nature of the world of Depereaux. I have no problem with anthropomorphizing animals - anthropormhize to your hearts content! I find it highly unsettling, however, that in the film the good Princess is in imminent danger of being devoured alive by sentient, rational, rats. Man is, by nature, a rational animal. The rats in the movie share that nature. Hence, the rats are men - small hairy men, yes, but men nontheless. In the natural order of things, man is above rats. Perhaps for that reason, the rat+trying-to-eat-princess scene Freaked Me The Heck Out. Granted, I'm squeamish and easily scared. But the inversion of the natural order (animals in power over man) compounded by the horror of rational beings wanting to consume the living flesh of another rational being? Eeegh! Aggh! Uggh! Then again, I suppose some might argue that ontological cannibalization really is kid's fare!

Note - this scene was not presented as a *good* situation. It was presented as a *very bad* situation. But it's a situation that I cannot conceive of as being appropriate for young children.

Oh. And ANOTHER thing! All throughout, there is mention made of how terrible it is to have your nature be a bad word, how we all act according to our natures, etc. While that's true, the language resonates with a hidden agenda: why be downers on the glbt lifestyle?

Finally, a comment was made in the beginning of the film about how soup day (a pivotal celebration in the movie) was much more important than Christmas - even though Christmas was STILL celebrated...Er...? While I very much doubt that this would leave an impression on a kid, it is nevertheless disquieting in light of how flawed the movie is.

Bottom line: don't watch it!

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