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 V.17 No.51 | December 18 - 24, 2008 

Film Review

The Tale of Despereaux

Stylish CGI fairy tale is surprisingly complex affair

“Seriously, lady. Kiss me and I’ll turn into a prince.”
“Seriously, lady. Kiss me and I’ll turn into a prince.”

The Tale of Despereaux

Directed by Sam Fell & Robert Stevenhagen

Cast: Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Sigourney Weaver

Last week’s release of the largely unadvertised, mostly unseen and deservedly unloved film Delgo and this week’s release of The Tale of Despereaux point out a hard-and-fast rule of computer-animated films: It takes a great deal of skill to make one. Delgo, a product of Atlanta’s Fathom Studios, opened on 2,160 screens and made all of $511,920. That averages out to about 2 people per screening. Of course, even the highest quality of CGI work can’t cover up for a poor story. Delgo sported neither skill nor story. On the complete, polar opposite hand, The Tale of Despereaux boasts impeccable animation and a delightful story.

Lensed by London-based Framestore Feature Animation in association with Universal Animation Studios and based on the award-winning book by Kate DiCamillo, Despereaux sends viewers into a lush fairy-tale world. The Despereaux of the title is a tiny mouse (even by mousey standards) with gigantic ears and a penchant for bravery. Bravery, curiosity and individuality—being very unmouselike qualities—create a great deal of concern in young Despereaux’s parents, teachers and siblings. Who is this mouse who would rather read books than eat them? Who is this undersized rodent who isn’t fearful of cats or mousetraps or knife-wielding farmers’ wives?

Don’t you want to pinch their fuzzy cheeks?
Don’t you want to pinch their fuzzy cheeks?

Actually, considering the odd sort of world Despereaux lives in, perhaps his obsession with chivalry, justice and micro-sized swordplay isn’t all that out of place.

Despereaux and his clan of cowering mice reside in a castle in the human kingdom of Dor. Dor is famed throughout the world for its love of soup. Every year, the King’s royal chef prepares a massive, magical feast of delicious soup for all the royal subjects large and small. One year, however, a visit by an adventurous seafaring rat named Roscuro results in a chaotic chain of events leading to the accidental death of the beloved Queen. Crushed by these events, the good King falls into a funk and bans all soup and all rats from his land. A pall settles over the land, stripping away all precipitation and leaving the soup-free people of Dor a dour lot.

In this atmosphere of unhappiness, our fearless little hero meets up with the kingdom’s sad Princess Pea. He cheers her up by spinning knightly tales he’s absorbed in the castle’s library. Unfortunately, Despereaux’s innocent association with the Princess gets him banished from Mouseworld (a bright town hidden in the walls of the castle) and sent down to Ratworld (a grubby metropolis relegated to the castle’s dank sewers). There, Despereaux meets up with the now sullen and vengeful Roscuro.

This description only touches the surface of The Tale of Despereaux’s narrative, which turns out to be a surprisingly dense affair. There’s also a bumbling servant girl who provides a vital link in our story, a nasty rat leader who offers some villainous friction and a fantastically skilled chef who dreams of using his culinary skills once again. Though aimed at children, Despereaux is arguably too complex and occasionally too dark for many of them. (Some of the book’s darker elements--tail-chopping chief among them--have been excised). Like the densely knotted story line, the overall themes also lie just outside the grasp of younger tots. Uncontent to tell your basic story of righteous heroes, slapstick sidekicks and evil villains, Despereaux aims for nuanced lessons in personal growth, karma and forgiveness. Most kids, frankly, would prefer fart jokes.

On the whole, Despereaux is a class act. The animation is well-rendered, offering both style (somewhere between Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and the art of Francisco Goya) and beautiful technical details (you can almost count the hairs on Despereaux’s head). The voicecast is chockablock with top-notch talent that fills the roles without overwhelming the story. (Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, you guys can really give it a rest.) Matthew Broderick is our humble hero Despereaux. Dustin Hoffman gives Roscuro a world-weary grace. Emma Watson is the hopeful Princess Pea. Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci and Frank Langella provide able back-up. Sigourney Weaver even shows up to do soothing work as the narrator.

The biggest shame is that Despereaux arrives a bit late in the CGI sweepstakes. Audiences are no longer dazzled by three-dimensional digital animation--they expect it as a matter of course. Despereaux also appears to tread ground already covered in similar toons like Flushed Away (rat cities), Ratatouille (rodents and culinary skills) and the Shrek series (tweaked-out fairy tales), which may inspire some to brand it unoriginal. Oh well. Given the right audience (fanciful adults and kids over a certain age), The Tale of Despereaux is sure to find a place in today’s rapidly evolving animation scene.


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