Movie Reviews: Summer films hit the mark

07 Jan 2009

By The Record

The Tale of Despereaux, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


The Tale of Despereaux

By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) – Those who fear that chivalry is dead will be reassured by The Tale of Despereaux (Universal/Relativity), a charming animated adventure about a mouse (voice of Matthew Broderick) with outsized ears, a strict code of honour and a taste for derring-do.
Far from winning him the admiration of his peers, however, Despereaux’s knightly aspirations set him apart in the miniature society of Mouseworld, where matches serve as streetlamps and an overturned dresser becomes a multiple-family dwelling.
Fearful conformity reigns in Mouseworld, and Despereaux’s refusal to toe the line by learning to cower worries his parents (voices of William H. Macy and Frances Conroy) and his principal (voice of Richard Jenkins).
Mouseworld is nestled within the walls of the royal castle of Dor, a once-happy human kingdom plunged into mourning by the untimely death of its queen. As her widowed father continually broods over his loss, playing melancholy tunes on his lute, Dor’s Princess Pea (voice of Emma Watson) longs for the return of sunnier times.
With his native pluck reinforced by his reading of a courtly romance in the castle library – the film sends a strong message about the enjoyment to be derived from books – Despereaux sallies forth and discovers the forlorn princess, whom he immediately pledges to assist.
This flagrant violation of rodent timidity results in Despereaux’s banishment to the dark and squalid tunnel known as Ratworld.
There, in the only scene that might frighten very young viewers, he’s pitted against a fearsome cat in the rats’ version of Roman gladiatorial games.
But Roscuro (voice of Dustin Hoffman), a globe-trotting rat with gourmet tastes and a fondness for light that make him, like Despereaux, an outsider, intervenes and takes the vulnerable mouse – whose adventurous spirit he shares – under his protection.
Though somewhat overloaded with multiple plot lines – Roscuro was unintentionally involved in the queen’s death and there’s a further series of complications involving a downtrodden farm girl named Miggery Sow (voice of Tracey Ullman) who yearns to be a princess – The Tale of Despereaux is delightfully innocent and idealistic, with objectionable material of any kind entirely absent.
Co-directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen’s painterly adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s 2003 best-selling, Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel celebrates its hero’s courageous openness while it also charts Roscuro’s discovery of the power of forgiveness.
Spiritually sound and aesthetically accomplished, The Tale of Despereaux can be recommended for all this school holidays.


Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

By Fr Peter Malone MSC
Not a fan of the original Madagascar (too many in-jokes for the voice stars undermining the cartoon capers), I approached this sequel with some trepidation.  However, I found it far better and funnier (and less ‘in’) than the first film.
Maybe, there is a touch more of the human this time (and some echoes of The Lion King) where we are shown Alex, the King of New York in zoo showbiz, as a cub more intent on dancing than fighting, where we see his father confronting his rival for leader of the pride of lions, where we see the mischievous Alex caught by hunters and his imprisoning box floating to New York and the life that we saw in the first film with his friends, Marty, Gloria and Melman.
This time they want to go to Connecticut but land up in Madagascar, presumably, and get a lift back to New York in a ramshackle plane piloted by the penguins which then has an amusing crash landing in deepest Africa – where Alex originally came from.  What follows is Alex finding his roots (and confronting his father’s rival after he fails the initiation rite), is Gloria falling in love with a very large hippo to Melman’s dismay, is Melman offering himself as a sacrifice to the gods of the volcano to get water back, is Marty finding that all zebras look the same even though each is unique.  King Julien is on hand again, just as manic, and leading the ceremony for the sacrifice.  There are some humans too, especially a determined ‘little old lady’ intent on controlling the big ‘kitties’.
Lots of zany action, some funny musical allusions, some adventure and danger – and the entertaining voices of Ben Stiller as Alex, Chris Rock doing his shtick as Marty, David Schwimmer mournful as Melman, Jada Pinkett Smith romantically hippo as Gloria and Sacha Baron Cohen on the loose as King Julien. 
A lot of nonsense, of course, but this time engagingly so.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

By Harry Forbes
NEW YORK (CNS) – “We’re meant to lose the people we love; how else are we to know how important they are to us?” a character asks rhetorically in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount), an overly long but highly imaginative expansion (and updating) of a 1922 F Scott Fitzgerald short story.
And in the story of a man born old who grows younger in appearance as he ages, death is always part of the fabric of life.
The story opens in New Orleans, where the titular character, played most impressively throughout by Brad Pitt narrating with a languorous Southern accent, is born with the face of an old man, as his mother dies in childbirth.
His crazed-with-grief father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), races out of their house, and deposits the baby on the steps of a retirement home.
Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the black attendant there, takes pity on the child, and announces to her skeptical male companion (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) that she will raise the white child, and so she lovingly does. In this environment, death is a natural and frequent occurrence that everyone takes in stride.
Young Benjamin, with his wizened face and bald pate, hobbles around like an arthritic oldster, and under Queenie’s overly protective care is rarely allowed to venture far from the home.
One of the elderly residents introduces him to her granddaughter Daisy (Elle Fanning), who seems to glean Benjamin’s youthful spirit, and a bond develops.
As Benjamin ages, he starts to look marginally younger, though is still an elderly man. He joins the staff of a tugboat run by rough-hewn Captain Mike (Jared Harris), who introduces Benjamin to his first sexual experience at a brothel. (Except for this very brief scene, overt sexual elements are minimal.)
Later, and now looking like the Brad Pitt we know, he has his first love affair with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the wife of a diplomat in the Russian seaport of Murmansk.
When he returns to New Orleans, he meets the grown Daisy (Cate Blanchett), an aspiring ballet dancer. Though she boldly suggests an affair, he declines, and they do not connect romantically until much later in the story (when their respective ages are better matched).
When they do, the romance is bittersweet, knowing their time together will be all too brief as they age in opposite directions.
Under David Fincher’s direction, the leads deliver very fine performances and the outstanding digital effects make the forward and backward aging remarkably believable. Blanchett is first seen as a dying old woman, having her daughter (Julia Ormond) read from Benjamin’s diary.
Eric Roth’s clever script (with Robin Swicord) more than a little resembles his earlier “Forrest Gump.” The rich production design and atmospheric cinematography are further pluses.
This most unusual and often melancholy story – presenting as it does a unique, often profound perspective on the transience of human life and how we deal with the people we meet and the things we experience including death – makes thought-provoking and ultimately poignant viewing.
The film contains implied nonmarital situations including nongraphic encounters, some rough language and brief profanity, mild innuendo, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, adultery, brief rear nudity and wartime violence.