Tale of Despereaux, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 12/19/08 14:24:52

"CG family film better than the sum of its parts."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"The Tale of Despereaux," the latest in a seemingly endless series of family-friendly, CG-animated films hoping to cash in on the commercial success of Pixar Animation Studios ("Wall-E," "Ratatouille," "The Incredibles," "Monsterís, Inc.," "Toy Story I and II") and DreamWorks Animation ("Kung Fu Panda," "Shrek I, II, and III"), is despite minor story problems, CG animation done right. With co-directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen at the helm and an adaptation by Gary Ross ("Big") from Kate DiCamilloís 2004 Newbery Medal-winning fantasy book, "The Tale of Despereaux" is a surprisingly well-animated, well-paced, well-told animated film suitable for children 6-60 (and above).

Set in the mythical, medieval kingdom of Dor, The Tale of Despereaux follows three characters, Despereaux Tilling (voiced by Matthew Broderick), a big-eyed, even bigger-eared, curious-minded, fearless mouse born into Mouseworld, Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), an itinerant, seafaring, sunlight-loving rat stuck belowground in Ratworld, and Princess Pea (Emma Watson), a sheltered member of the royal family, and their criss-crossing paths. When Roscuroís curiosity gets the better of him during Dorís annual Soup Day, he inadvertently falls into the queenís tureen. Upon seeing Roscuro, the queen suffers a heart attack, plunging the king into an inconsolable grief. The king outlaws Soup Day, exiles rats into the netherworld, and retreats from public life. Failing to escape, Roscuro falls into Mouseworld, a dark, nasty, ugly kingdom ruled with an iron fist by the Nosferatu-look-alike Botticelli (CiarŠn Hinds).

As Despereaux grows up, his mouse parents, Lester (William H. Macy) and Antoinette (Frances Conroy), begin to worry that heíll be banished into the deep, dark dungeons for his unmouse-like behavior. In class, Despereaux refuses to cower on cue. When he follows his older brother, Furlough (Tony Hale), into the human world and a library, rather than make a meal out of the books, he escapes into tales of knights, dragons, and damsels in distress. After revealing himself and talking to Princess Pea, the Mayor (Frank Langella) of Mouseworld banishes Despereaux into the dungeons where, presumably, heíll be eaten by the ferocious rats. Luckily for Despereaux, however, Roscuro saves him and soon takes pleasure in hearing Despereauxís tall tales. One of Princess Peaís servants, Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), dreams of becoming a princess and with an unlikely ally, plots to send Princess Pea to the dungeons.

With its emphasis on bravery, chivalry, loyalty, compassion, adventure, and, of course, talking animals, itís easy to see why The Tale of Despereaux caught the attention of Gary Ross and his fellow producers. While itís a formula right out of every Pixar Animation Studios or DreamWorks Animation animated film, Ross, Fell, and Stevenhagen manage to freshen up the formula, primarily through inventive character designs (no photorealism or attempt at photorealism here, thankfully), energetic pacing, and effervescent storytelling that throws in enough visual gags to keep the under-10 set amused and enough visual flourishes to keep the adults entertained.

"The Tale of Despereaux" isnít without its rough spots, however. As the offscreen narrator, Sigourney Weaver wends her way in and out of the story, sometimes obtrusively, sometimes redundantly to underline a theme or reemphasize a plot point. Ross, Fell, and Stevenhagen should have trusted their better instincts and minimized Weaverís offscreen narration, letting the characters and the story dictate the themes or plot points they were so eager to emphasize. Still, the narration problem is a minor criticism, especially in comparison to the fully realized, picture book world, Ross, Fell, and Stevenhagen (and their animators) created for the enjoyment of moviegoers, young and old (and middle-aged) alike.

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