Starring (voices of) Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Ciarán Hinds, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Hale, Frances Conroy, Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Shaughnessy, Sigourney Weaver.
Written by Kate DiCamillo (book) Will McRobb, Gary Ross, Chris Viscardi.
Directed by Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen.
By Dan Metcalf
For me, cute animated stories about talking animals are becoming passe'. There are dog stories, cat stories, cow stories, lion stories...even fish stories that continue to stretch the imagination and break new boundaries. There are few stories, however, where the animals talk with humans like this week's release of The Tale of Despereaux, the story of a brave little mouse.
But the story here is a problem. Normally at this point in a review, I'd go over the main plot points in a few paragraphs, but Despereaux's story is so absurd and multi-faceted, a few paragraphs wouldn't do it justice.
Even so, I will try.
The Tale of Despereaux isn't just the story of the cute little mouse with over-sized ears. It begins with Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), a well-traveled rat whose trail leads him to the kingdom of Dor and its famous soup, created by the king and queen's personal chef, who draws his inspiration from man made of vegetables. When Roscuro accidentally falls into the queen's soup and scares her to death, he is forced to escape and live in the dungeons with all the other rats, now banished from the outside kingdom because of the grief-stricken king, who also bans soup. Princess Pea (voiced by Harry Potter's Emma Watson) sadly contemplates life with soup sunlight and rain, all of which have disappeared because o the queen's death.
Enter Despereaux Tilling, a little mouse who refuses to cower and scurry like other mice, but longs for adventure and romance. He soon discovers Princess Pea and woos her with his tales of gallantry. When the other mice learn he is conversing with humans, Despereaux is banished to the dungeon with the rats.
Meanwhile, a chubby young girl named Miggery Sow comes to live and work in the castle after spending her life as an orphan. Mig longs to be a real princess, and plots to take Pea's crown. She too finds her way to the dungeon, and so does Pea, who is eventually trapped by the rats.
Let me check...rats, mice, soup, talking vegetables, king, princess....yep, that's pretty much it, although I'm sure I left quite a few things out.
Which leads me to the movie's biggest flaw. It's complicated; almost too complicated for an old guy like me to follow, let alone preteens, who seem to be Despereaux's target audience. It's really three stories crammed into one. There's Despereaux and his brave conquest to save the princess, Roscuro's tale of tragedy and redemption with his role in bringing dark times to the kingdom, and Mig's coming to terms with seeing her self worth. On an individual level, all these stories stand well on their own, but trying to fit so much into a 90-minute film is a little too much to take in.
Then there's the odd factors. Talking vegetables, mice and rats talking with humans, soup, etc. are but a few things that are kind of weird, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I like the weirdness of it, and kind of liked Despereaux. I just don't see the movie appealing to masses of kids or adults. There are also some beautiful themes and morals such as forgiveness, mercy, redemption, love, and self worth. I just don't think the pre-schoolers are going to get the subtle nuances of such deep philosophy.
The quality of the animation is fine, except for a little too many stiff expressions on the faces of the characters. The production design of the movie is imaginative, looking very much like a renaissance painting. The overall feel of the movie is perhaps a little too dark for little kids as well, what with death, murderous rats, and cannibalism and such.
The voices in Despereaux are appropriately cast, but the movie's main character is its narrator (Sigourney Weaver) and there are too many characters to allow much personality from the star-studded cast (including William H. Macy, Frank Langella, Robbie Coltrane, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline and Tracy Ullman to name a few).
Despite these flaws an its weirdness, The Tale of Despereaux is a fine animated film. Just don't expect to leave the theater with a clear and plausible explanation of what it's all about.