The Series: Mouse Guard by David Petersen.
The Heroes: Warrior mice who patrol to keep their fellow rodents safe from predators.
The Ideal Format: An animated series—hand-drawn, not CGI, to better emulate Petersen's original designs.
The natural world has always been a brutal place. “Red in tooth and claw,” as the poets say. Plenty of capable, healthy, smart humans die while enjoying the outdoors every year.
Imagine how much harder it is to survive when you're only a couple inches tall and have very little in the way of either teeth or claws. When just about everything around you would like nothing more than to swallow you whole.
Life is never easy on the lowest link of the food chain, and it's hard to imagine a creature more helpless than a mouse.
In his Eisner Award-winning series, Mouse Guard, writer and artist David Petersen transforms these diminutive rodents into heroic badasses. Warriors you cheer on as they tackle impossible odds, bring down fearsome beasts, and sacrifice everything in the name of the greater good.
Casting woodland creatures as larger-than-life heroes isn't a new thing: Brian Jacques did so to great effect with his Redwall series; and while Richard Adams's rabbits in Watership Down didn't wield swords or wear clothes, they were still noble, story-telling adventurers in search of a better home.
Working in the same vein as the Redwall books, Petersen's stories present a charming cast of mice who find themselves caught up in an epic battle between armies and ideals. For many seasons, the Mouse Guard has protected far-flung communities of mice, serving as guards and guides to the peaceful farmers and tradesmice.
But a discontented movement is gaining ground—there are some who think the Guard should have more power, that there should be a single leader uniting the villages. Traitors are moving within the Guard itself, sowing disaster…
It's Game of Thrones on a much smaller scale (and with decidedly less sex but more honor). Our principal characters are:
- Kenzie and Saxon are lifelong friends and total opposites. Kenzie is the strategist and leader who favors the quarterstaff, while headstrong swordmouse Saxon is always squaring up for a fight. Despite their differences, the two share a 'til-death-do-us-part bond of brotherhood.
- Lieam is the newest recruit to the Guard but promises to be its most passionate member.
- Sadie is a master tracker and deft fighter with her dual daggers.
- Celanawe swears he's the “Black Axe” Guard of legend; while old and gray, he's not that ancient, and most find his claim hard to believe. What is undeniable is that he's a powerful and canny warrior who always puts mousekind ahead of himself.
- Gwendolyn is the Matriarch of the Guard, their leader and wisest member.
- Midnight is the malcontented Guard who decides to raise an army of his own and seize power in direct defiance of the Guard's mission.
The world the Guard moves through looks familiar; this is clearly a rugged woodland untouched by mankind (humans make no appearance in this series). The characters are normal mice in all respects, save for their propensity to wear cloaks, carry weapons, and speak like medieval adventurers.
Petersen's mice build homes within hollow trees, concoct medicines from herbs and sap, and make their own swords. Some of their enemies—primarily weasels—live as they do, while others—like crabs, owls, and snakes—are much more primitive and bestial.
The mice have allies, such as the hares they sometimes ride like horses, and also cultivate insects the way humans keep farm animals. (One of the most charming aspects of the series is how the Guard maintain apiaries and use the bees for both their honey and as weapons against their enemies.)
Our brave heroes square off against hordes of crabs, hungry snakes, and treacherous bats. Despite their size, they're mostly up to the task thanks to their fighting spirit and quick wits: Sadie scares off a horned owl by sling-shooting a rock into its eye, while little Lieam ducks between venomous fangs to plunge his short sword into a striking snake's mouth.
They may be lacking in size, but they make up for it with sheer courage. The members of the Guard never hesitate to throw themselves into danger if it will save others. While those on patrol face down hungry predators, the Guard back home at Lockhaven, their center of command, have to deal with the inner treachery of their own kind.
With Mouse Guard, we get action both political and adventurous. There are sprinklings of romance, chivalric embellishes worthy of any bard, and moments of genuine sadness when heroes we've come to love fall in the line of battle.
All of this would make for a riveting animated series, and Petersen's artwork and cinematic framing would make adaptation for the screen nearly seamless. The mice are fairly uniform in design, but each has distinctive flourishes to set them easily apart, and the world they move through is rich in texture, providing absolutely beautiful backgrounds.
Traditional animation has been largely abandoned on the big screen, but hand-drawn series still thrive on TV—and I stand firm when I say the best way to adapt Mouse Guard would be to completely eschew CGI.
There's something very classic and rich about Mouse Guard; CGI would be far too shiny and “new.” This is a series that has more in common with Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings or 1988's Felix The Cat: The Movie than anything Disney has produced, at least in terms of spirit and style.
I've been a fan of Mouse Guard for years—it debuted back in 2006—and often wondered why it had yet to be turned into a TV series or feature film. Creator Petersen has long said he wouldn't sign off on an adaptation unless he was confident it would be done right; he was firm that the all-ages content had to be preserved and treated with respect.
When I first started this series of articles back in March, I knew Mouse Guard had to have a place on the list. Just as I predicted what was to come with Runaways (April's post and last week's latest buzz re: Marvel TV adapts), so, too, with Mouse Guard.
It seems that 20th Century Fox was the lucky company to check all of Petersen's required boxes: just last month it was announced that Mouse Guard would be making the jump to the big screen. The only catch—it'll be done in the style of the most recent Jungle Book, part live-action and part-CGI.
Personally, I'm not entirely sold on that idea. This isn't a series that needs to be live-action at all; there are no human characters, so there's no need to have actual actors on screen, and with everything in the story's world at such a small scale, mixing such styles of filmmaking is pointless. Why use mob-cap technology at all when you could purely animate everything?
Of course, I'll reserve final judgment until the trailers are released and we can actually see what they intend to do. 20th Century Fox and Co. are really going to have to do something impressive, though, to convince me that they're doing the heroes of the Guard justice…
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.