Beautifully drawn, imaginatively composed, I like a whole lot of The Tale of Despereaux but left wanting a whole lot more. Faithful in design – if entirely unfaithful in character, theme, and effect – to the children’s book The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo, the film tries to tell four separate stories that don’t really intertwine till the end in a 90-minute timeframe, with limited success.
I wish they would have just stuck with mouse Despereaux, an adorable little creature who should be at the center of his own Tale but has to share far too much screentime with a plethora of secondary characters.
Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen’s film begins with the story of Roscuro the Rat (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), a seafaring rogue who visits the human Kingdom of Dor in time for their annual soup festival. Rats and soup, and we’re instantly reminded of Pixar and Brad Bird’s excellent Ratatouille, though the connection is soon forgotten.
Anyway, Roscuro, led by his nose to the castle’s soup kitchen, makes an auspicious debut to the human world when he lands in the Queen’s soup bowl after she takes a sip.
The Queen has a heart attack and dies on the spot, Roscuro slips into Ratworld, in the castle’s dungeon, the King goes into morning and bans all soup and rats from the kingdom, and the land plunges into darkness (as narrator Sigourney Weaver awkwardly informs us: “and the clouds stayed, and stayed, and stayed.” That’s a lot of staying.)
Fifteen minutes into the movie we’re first introduced to the titular character, as mouse Despereaux is born in Mouseworld, the small world of mice that live inside the castle walls. He quickly grows up to be a rather problematic mouse: he doesn’t cower, defies mousetraps and snatches their cheese, and sketches cats on his notebook.
“Are you a man, or a mouse?” the community leaders ask him. Well, he wants to be a courageous knight, like in the story he reads in the castle’s library, and save Princess Pea from the gloom that has fallen over the kingdom.
So he’s banished to Ratworld in some of the film’s best sequences, including one where he must face a hungry cat in a gladiatorial-like arena. Then there’s the story of Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), a poor servant girl who clearly should have been excised from this film; despite having much significance in the novel, her story of adoption, labor, and dreaming of becoming a princess is glossed over in 5-10 minutes here and she has the weakest of connections to the rest of the plotlines.
And then there are the rest of the human characters in the castle: the Princess who we never get to know, the mourning King, the castle’s chef (voiced by Kevin Kline) and his assistant, an anthropomorphic talking collage of vegetables voiced by Stanley Tucci.
There’s simply too much going on in too short a time frame to do justice to everything, and Despereaux’s tale suffers in that attempt. The movie is sufficiently different from the book in most other ways, so I really wonder why they didn’t axe a couple of the extraneous plotlines and characters.
So I didn’t really care for the way the story is handled here, but man, this movie is beautiful to look at. It feels like the Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit sketches come to life, and while I love the cartoonish style and pseudo-realism of Pixar’s recent films, this is the first time I’ve seen fully-CGI animation reach the artistically imaginative heights of something like The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Although it’s clearly not the most technically proficient animation out there – movement is often too stiff, there’s frequently dead space, and the characters sometimes aren’t as fully matched to their voices as they should be – the film almost deserves a recommendation for the artwork alone.
Likewise, the voice cast is excellent: Broderick is perfectly cast as Despereaux, Hoffman has a lot of fun as Roscuro, and even the smallest roles are performed with gusto, like Frank Langella as the mayor of Ratworld, or Richard Jenkins as Despereaux’s school principal. I could have done without Weaver’s narration, however.
Warning: this is about as intense as a G-Rated children’s film can get, with characters frequently in peril, rats cruising down dungeon rivers in human skulls, and a rather matter-of-fact treatment of death and mourning.
It’s been edited down for MPAA approval – there’s a scene early on of a knight taking a mace to the foot that’s clearly missing the expected reaction shot – and not really suitable for the youngest.