Dir: Sam Fell & Rob Stevenhagen. US. 2008. 93 mins.
A 3-D animated adventure based on the popular 2003 children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, The Tale Of Despereauxis a somewhat charmless affair which, while striking to look at, fails to come to dramatic life. Narratively convoluted and containing some grim plot turns which wouldn’t be out of place in a Jan Svankmajer film, Despereaux is unlikely to attract the all-demographic audiences whick flock to titles from Pixar or DreamWorks Animation.
To say there are too many characters is an understatement, and the all-star voice cast seems wasted.
One of the first large-scale animated titles to come out of Universal Pictures in some years, Despereaux is styled after the Flemish Masters and it feels as dour as the greens and browns used in the colour palette. The royal characters are alienating, designed with long faces and hard, elongated noses which split their faces in two, while the serving staff are virtual Neanderthals - round, ugly and docile. Most of the rodent characters, mice and rats alike, are unpleasant in both looks and deeds. Mercifully Despereaux himself, with his outsize ears, is as cute as a button, offering one of the film’s few obvious merchandising tie-ins.
Part of the challenge for the film is introducing DiCamillo’s made-up kingdom of Dor in all its facets. A narration by Sigourney Weaver explains much of the culture and backstories of Dor, but there is so much to establish that the film never picks up a consistently brisk pace.
In the midst of all this scene-setting, Despereaux himself doesn’t appear for a good 15 minutes. The story starts out with a likeable rat called Roscuro (voiced by Hoffman) who arrives in Dor for the annual soup-making celebrations. But when he accidentally lands in the queen’s soup, she is so shocked that she dies on the spot, causing the bereaved king to send the kingdom into a state of permanent mourning, Soup-making is banned, rats are made illegal and dispatched to an underground existence in Ratworld and the king’s own daughter, the princess Pea (Watson), is left full of longing and sadness.
Despereaux’s own story begins after this lengthy prologue. In Mouseworld (which exists in a secret pocket of the human world), we hear (courtesy of Weaver) how the tiny mouse was born and grew up, never fitting in with his contemporaries. Full of daring and bravado, Despereaux (voiced by Broderick) has a hunger for adventure which gets him into trouble, especially when he befriends Princess Pea.
Since talking to a human is illegal, he is banned to the depths of Ratworld and almost certain death.
Of course he doesn’t die, instead befriending Roscuro, and persuading him to apologize to Princess Pea for her mother’s death. But when the princess scorns his friendship, Roscuro decides to take his revenge and teams up with ambitious serving girl Miggery Snow (voiced by Ullman) to capture the princess and bring her to Ratworld. Among the crowd of characters are Despereaux’s despairing parents, Miggery’s father Gregory, the evil rat king Botticelli, the king’s chef Andre and Boldo, his genie made out of vegetables, the old blind mouse Hovis, the Mouse Mayor etc. To say there are too many characters is an understatement, and the all-star voice cast seems wasted.
Younger children might find elements of the story upsetting. Aside from the sudden death of the Queen, Despereaux is sent off by his own parents to die and Miggery is abandoned by her father to a pig farmer who proceeds to sell her into servitude at the palace. It’s a cruel world in Dor.
Larger Than Life
From a screen story by Will McRobb & Chris Viscardi
Based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo
William H Macy