Tale of Despereaux, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/29/09 03:21:38

"Sweet, exciting, and lovely."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

There is a certain gentleness in “The Tale of Despereaux,” a grand sweetness we’ve long been missing in our animated films, Pixar notwithstanding. This movie is light and warm and almost effortlessly delicate, avoiding smug self-awareness and desperate pop culture comedy in favor of honest-to-goodness fairy tale earnestness.

And as a fairy tale, shamelessly old fashioned in every respect, it is also at times unexpectedly dark. Not in a way that is inappropriate for its target audience - in fact, it’s in a way that respects the imagination and maturity of young viewers. There is grave danger to be found here, and inescapable sadness, too, but in ways that only make the hero’s triumphs all the more rewarding.

The film is adapted from Kate DiCamillo’s book; the screenplay (by Gary Ross, with an assist from Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi) adds quite a bit to an already busy story, and all that excess repeatedly threatens to turn to clutter, although we’re never overwhelmed with it all. The plot involves: a curious, brave mouse named Despereaux (voiced with innocent glee by Matthew Broderick), who wants to be a knight; Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), the rat banished to a dark underworld; the lonesome Princess Pea (Emma Watson); her maiden, Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman); a chef (Kevin Kline); a spirit (Stanley Tucci) made of vegetables; and a kingdom where soup and rats have been banished forever, following a great tragedy involving both.

That’s quite a bit for any film, let alone a family one. There are times the story goes off on one tangent too many, some of Ross’ upgrades to DiCamillo’s original tale are unnecessary, and at least one key plot turn comes all too sudden, as if the film suddenly decided it needed to pick up its leisurely pace. But we often don’t mind, as all the distractions and side adventures are enchanting, while Sigourney Weaver’s soothing narration creates an effective bridge between the elements.

More important in the movie’s success is how the animators create an intricate universe for our characters. Each of the three “worlds” of the story - the human kingdom, with its castle and village; the quaint Mouseworld, modest and lovely; the horrid Ratworld, a sort of villain’s paradise, scarred by darkness - is a complex creation. You can get lost for hours studying the corners of every frame of this film, both in the elegant animation (there’s an absolute beauty to just about everything here) and the whimsical designs (how smart to place, say, the mouse school within hollowed-out books).

There is a scene early in the movie that follows the inner mechanics of a giant soup-making machine. Later, Despereaux discovers the library, and the thrilling escape of a good book. Then we meet the Threadmaster, a blind rodent providing a link between the mouse and rat worlds. And there is the story of Mig, and how she got to the castle, and how she will eventually leave.

And on, and on. The filmmakers pack all of these asides, and many, many more, with a magical sense of fairy tale wonder. “Despereaux” is the cinematic equivalent of a cozy bedtime story, warmly told with loving care.

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