"The Tale of Despereaux" Just Misses a Win, But Definitely Brave in the Attempt
The best fairy tales are lighter than air, which is why we can listen to them over and over, even though we know exactly where they are going and how they are getting there. The hero of the story will overcome all obstacles to achieve his destiny. Every character or plot element has a larger purpose, and the weapons needed to defeat the dragons will turn out to have been hidden in plain sight all along.
The Tale of Despereaux aspires to join the rarified company of classic animated fairy tales, but while the final film possesses ample charms, they are not quite enough to counterbalance the film’s flaws. In the end, The Tale of Despereaux tells a delightful story, but it doesn’t quite achieve the lift it needs to truly take flight.
The movie is based on the award-winning children’s novel by Kate DiCamillo and begins in the idyllic fairy tale kingdom of Dor, known throughout the world for its fabulous and delicious soups. Unfortunately, the rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) appears at exactly the wrong time in the kingdom’s annual soup festival, resulting in the accidental death of the Queen. Distraught, the King bans both rats and soup, and a gray pallor and drought falls over the kingdom. However, the salvation of the kingdom comes in the form of the brave little mouse Despereaux Tilling (voiced by Matthew Broderick, who seems unable to play roles his own age). Unlike his peers, he is does not cower in the face of carving knives and mousetraps, but it’s only when he opts to read a book rather than eat its pages that his head is filled with dreams of valiant adventures as a gentlemanly knight errant. Before long, he befriends the melancholy Princess Pea (Emma Watson), which puts him on a collision course with his own people and the kingdom of the rats.
There is plenty to like, and even to love, about The Tale of Despereaux. The title character is a winning hero who is brought to life with wonderful character animation and an excellent vocal performance. His inherent fearlessness shines through in his confident walk, body language, and large, curious gaze. Matthew Broderick lends him an appealing nobility and innocence that keeps his brave proclamations from sounding arrogant or as though he’s showing off. His rat counterpart Roscuro may not be as overtly adorable, but he’s gifted with equally excellent character animation and an underplayed and sensitive vocal performance by Dustin Hoffman. Among the rest of the supporting cast, the most memorable is probably the rat king Botticelli, voiced by Ciaran Hinds channelling Peter O’Toole to give the character a quiet but palpable sense of menace, even if he’s more of a convenient plot expedience than a convincing villain.
On the surface, the story may feel like yet another “learn to believe in yourself” tale, but The Tale of Despereaux bucks the usual clichés by being surprisingly and subtly subversive. Despereaux’s refusal to bow before societal conventions of fear and ignorance gives the tale a noticeably pointed edge, but he maintains his charm because he is so un-self-conscious in his rebellion towards the authority figures around him. There is also a subplot involving the Princess’ servant girl Mig (Tracey Ullman) that underscores the stratification of social class that usually goes unmentioned or ignored in fairy tales. I also appreciate that Despereaux’s greatest strengths are curiosity, literacy, and honesty, and all of his triumphs arise from those traits. Finally, like its title character, The Tale of Despereaux is also not afraid to venture into the darker waters that Disney and DreamWorks seem to fear. It is willing to confront topics like death openly and honestly, and makes the mob of rats a bit more frightening than the average talking cartoon animal villains. One of the most wonderfully eerie moments is when Despereaux encounters the strange, blind mouse Hovis (Christopher Lloyd), who is fascinating and just a little bit unsettling even though he gets only a few minutes of screen time.
Unfortunately, The Tale of Despereaux creaks and groans under the strain of a few too many plot elements. It takes a terribly long time for the movie to even introduce its title character, for instance, and it comes nearly to a standstill during its second act as it carefully sets up plot dominoes for the third act. The problem is that it is a little too obvious about setting them up, and the third act ends up being a bit too intricate, since its parallel plot lines seem to be running at entirely different speeds.
The movie also suffers from having too many characters. Mig gets introduced way too late in the movie to really make much of an impact, and her subplot is both predictable and slightly underdone. The royal chef Andre and his talking pile of magic vegetables (Kevin Kline and Stanley Tucci, respectively) are strange and almost completely superfluous comic-relief anomalies in a movie that plays mostly straight. Even though both play their part in the conclusion, it might have made for a better movie to cut them down or excise them entirely. It almost feels like the screenwriters feared to strip down a sophisticated, textured novel for the screen because of the risk of losing what made the novel charming in the first place. Instead, the story feels overstuffed, even if it’s with plenty of great moments.
The CGI in The Tale of Despereaux is strikingly ornate, although it is admittedly not quite as high-caliber as what we’ve come to expect from the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks. However, those two studios have set quite a high technical bar, so noting that the fur on the rodents and the hair on the people isn’t quite as sharp as it has been in other movies isn’t a terribly serious criticism. To its credit, The Tale of Despereaux takes pains to stake out a distinctive look all its own: one that seems inspired by a combination of the works of Dutch art masters and the puppets of Rankin-Bass. It also pulls off many wonderful, long tracking shots, weaving a camera through impossible spaces like the intricate royal kitchen or the squalid hovels of the rats. But one of the most brilliant sequences—which depicts Despereaux’s dreams of knights and adventure—are rendered to resemble paper-cut stop-motion animation, with the CGI lending just a touch of depth to the characters and placing the whole thing in a highly stylized, flattened space that simulates multi-plane camera effects. It’s a bold animation experiment that works beautifully, clearly setting off these sequences from the rest of the movie and yielding tremendously arresting images.
If nothing else, The Tale of Despereaux is a minor milestone in animated filmmaking. While it may be a movie for kids that stars talking animals, it is also far more sophisticated than many other movies of its ilk and eschews musical numbers, toilet humor, and the braying sense of humor that mark too many other animated children’s movies. Making a movie like this would have been unthinkable even ten years ago for any studio except Pixar. The Tale of Despereaux is definitely an enjoyable enough movie, and the audience of children in our theater were captivated into silence fairly quickly. It is through the power of a great story that Despereaux Tilling becomes more than what he seems to be. The filmmakers behind The Tale of Despereaux truly understand this power of great stories, and they come agonizingly close to producing a story with that kind of power themselves. Still, they deserve no small commendation for their ambition, even if their reach just exceeds their grasp.