|The Tale of
Starring Matthew Broderick,
Emma Watson, and Dustin Hoffman
The Tale of Despereaux unfolds like a children’s book, which is good news since this is, after all, adapted from a children’s book. Without being overly complicated, its story is a bit of a page-turner, although some of the time you’d be content to just stare at the pictures.
Animation has likely never been a bigger financial boon for studios (in a time when most other movies carry with them huge question marks), and it has never been more on the forefront of emerging technologies. Despite any traditional soft spots you might have for Disney classics like Bambi, this is a true golden age of animated film.
Despereaux comes to us not from Disney, DreamWorks or even Fox, but rather from Universal. Though its only other cartoon is the Curious George movie from 2006, you can’t tell that Universal is new to the game.
Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Dave, Seabiscuit) produced Despereaux and adapted the script from Kate DiCamillo’s book. That explains why some passages of this film are so resonant, touching, and poignant. There are no fewer than a dozen well-known actors who give these characters life and depth, Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, William H. Macy, and Kevin Kline among them.
Despereaux (Broderick) is a brave mouse in a time of unparalleled meekness among his, uh, people. He doesn’t cower, doesn’t scurry, and actually invites danger; but not because he’s reckless or dangerous himself. Despereaux is merely curious. But because the human king of the castle in which he and his family live has established a law that all rats are illegal (and it’s not a wise idea for mice to be seen, either), Despereaux’s natural curiosity is bound to get him into trouble.
He surfaces, makes friends with the princess (Watson), and vows to turn her frown upside down. However, news of his exploits quickly spread, and Despereaux is jailed, sent to a din of iniquity that the common rats call home. He meets a refined rat of sorts (Hoffman), and the two vermin band together to create a lasting moral for impressionable children everywhere.
Where The Tale of Despereaux lags slightly behind the more vibrant Wall-E and even Kung Fu Panda is in the details of the animation and meshing the visuals and the narrative. The look of primary characters like Despereaux is spellbinding, but it’s not so good for background characters or inanimate objects. Pixar would get that right. And Ross’ script almost doesn’t seem like it belongs in a cartoon, so there are few elements that are somehow too cartoonish, like a weird magically summoned kind of vegetable man that advances the story not one iota. Perhaps he's there to make up the difference between Ross' more grounded components in the screenplay.
Kids won’t notice, nor should they; this is still a very rewarding animated family film to wrap up the year.