The spinoff: Despereaux Housewives.
Everyone seems intent on comparing The Tale of Despereaux to Pixar’s excellent Ratatouille. I initially told myself I wouldn’t do so as well, choosing instead to view Despereaux on its own merits. Then, during the first 10 minutes of the movie, there’s a comedy chase scene with a rat in a kitchen, and it’s a little hard not to see the similarities. Still, while Brad Bird’s animated movie had the rodent wishing to be a chef, Deseperaux, co-directed by Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen, has the animated rodent wishing to be knight in shining armor.
In the mythical kingdom of Dor, an incident with a rat once ruined the celebrated soup day, leading to tragedy. Because of this, the king outlawed all soup, and all rats. This upsets the natural order of things to the point where they skies are always grey, but there’s never any rain. Some time later, a young mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), who is smaller than his fellow mice, causes a stir in the mouse community with his boundless courage. Because all mice are taught from birth to be timid and fearful, he is an outcast among his kind. After meeting the Princess of Dor (Emma Watson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), and inspired by stories of heroism and chivalry, Despereaux sets off on what he believes will be heroic quest, to restore the kingdom to its former glory.
The movie begins with a narrator establishing some “rules” of this fantasy world, stating that rats hate sunlight, avoid people, and don’t speak. As the narrator says this, we see a rat enjoying the sun, being friendly with humans, and, yes, talking to them. What this says to the audience is “the rules don’t apply.”
This applies to the story at hand. The movie begins by establishing a lengthy back story about Dor, the rats, and the how the kingdom fell. Despereaux doesn’t show up until deep into the story, and doesn’t set off on his big adventure until later. A subplot about a servant girl who wishes to be a princess comes out of nowhere seemingly at random, and it’s not until the third act that we see how she fits into the main plot. Conventional screenwriting wisdom states that the back story would be better summarized, and that the servant girl’s introduction should be woven into the narrative in a less abrupt way. But, this movie’s writers insist on tossing out the rules and telling the story their own way. Some viewers might watch this, wondering “When’s the plot going to start?” followed by, “Is this plot going anywhere?” Fortunately, it all does tie together by the end, coming to a nice resolution.
A lot of the characters have a slight duality to them. When we finally meet and get to know Despereaux, he is completely fearless—that’s his main character trait. What I kept waiting for was the big moment in which Despereaux’s famed courage was put to the test. This seemed to happen when he first enters the dungeon, but for the most part, Despereauxnever has a moment to question his heroic drive. More than the takes-forever-to-get-going story structure, it’s this that keeps the movie from reaching huge heights. A second storyline, involving Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman, Wag the Dog), the rat who brought down the kingdom on soup day, plays more successfully into the sense of duality. He’s a good, uh, person, but he has a moment of temptation to indulge his dark side and embrace his rat-like nature. It’s an interesting turn for his character to take, and gives him an unpredictable nature.
There are plenty of other reasons to praise the movie as well, most notably its look. On the bonus features, the creators discuss how the various environments are based on classical paintings capturing the medieval period, and it shows. The human characters’ faces are long and angular, like an old-timey tapestry. Scenes inside the castle are bathed in light streaming in from large, latticed windows. The mouse community has the hustle and bustle of an idealized marketplace of commoners, and the rat-filled dungeon is playfully chaotic, loosely based on paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. (Good gosh, Hieronymus Bosch!) Each scene is filled with a lot of little details, making Despereaux feast for the eyes.
One of the supporting characters in this movie is a creature made entirely of fruits and vegetables, who floats around in mid-air and talks with a funny accent. What the hell is that thing?!?
As expected for a recently-made CGI ‘toon, the picture quality here is a razor sharp, with all the little details and lush lighting practically leaping off the screen. The behind-the-scenes featurette is a good one, showing the filmmakers’ insistence on making the movie their own way, rather than follow the “normal” way. This is followed by a number of kid-based bonus features, including a couple of simplistic interactive games you play with your remote and a map of the kingdom, including the mouse and rat worlds. There are also a few trailers, including an extended sneak preview of Curious George 2: Follow that Monkey.
The Tale of Despereaux has a lot of charm and some seriously good-looking animation. An at-times clunky script, though, makes it a good movie, but not the modern classic it could be.