The Tale of Despereaux

Movie Information

The Story: A fearless little mouse sets out to make big changes in the dismal land of Dor in order to please a princess. The Lowdown: A perfectly acceptable, but far from exciting animated film that should be fine for kids and reasonably painless for those accompanying them.
Score:

Genre: Animated Fantasy
Director: Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen
Starring: (Voices of) Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Ciarán Hinds
Rated: G

Because The Tale of Despereaux is the only really kiddie-centric offering this holiday season, it will probably do pretty well at the box office—and, much like the movie itself, that’s OK, but not very exciting for anybody. Back when this version of Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book was in the hands of Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville), there was cause for some expectations of a truly inspired film. Dial those expectations down about 50 notches and you’re probably about where you should be, but a cup or three of espresso before sitting down with Despereaux might not hurt. If you’re under 12, you can skip the suggested caffeination. There’s nothing actually wrong with Despereaux, but there’s nothing all that right with it either.

The story is surprisingly convoluted in that it is a good bit less about its tiny hero with big ears, Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), than it is about a decidedly less cute representative of rodentia, the rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman). The movie also tells the plight of a somewhat bland princess (Emma Watson) and depicts the reasonable resentment of an aptly named serving girl/wanna-be princess Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman)—and includes the whole downbeat populace of the country (maybe it’s a town) of Dor. The strange thing about it all is that the individual bits and pieces don’t really lead to enough drama or action or anything else that could be termed terribly exciting. Rising to the heights of the perfunctory is at least a couple once-upon-a-times shy of the full Brothers Grimm.

The events of the film are set in motion when Roscuro—a ship rat of a gourmand bent—arrives in Dor on the day of the big soup festival, which doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but seems to thrill the people of Dorian to no end. Trouble arises when Roscuro—overwhelmed by the delicious aroma of the soup—falls from his perch and into the queen’s bowl of soup. This so unnerves the lady that she either expires from shock or faints into the bowl and drowns. In either case, she has handed in her soup ladle—plunging the king into reels and reels of mopey mandolin strumming, but not before he outlaws soup and rats. While I can live without either one, the decree plunges Dor into despair, gray skies and drought.

Meanwhile, Despereaux is born in Mouseworld (yep, that’s what they call it) and poses an immediate problem since he won’t behave like a proper mouse—meaning he’s not afraid of anything and rather than eat a book, he reads it. Worse, the book gives him notions, so when he finds the heartsore princess he decides to be her knight in shining armor. Complications arise, but, being a kid’s film, you may be sure it will work out, which is exactly as it should be. If only it were a little more involving.

There are some nice touches—like a character made out of vegetables and fruit in the style of a Giuseppe Arcimboldo painting—and a couple good voice performances. Much as he did with Kung Fu Panda earlier this year, Dustin Hoffman takes the honors here, though Ciarán Hinds as the evil king-rat Botticelli (who looks and dresses suspiciously like Count Orlok in Murnau’s Nosferatu) offers some competition. There are also the requisite positive children’s movie messages, which the film makes sure everyone gets by having narrator Sigourney Weaver spell them out—none too enthusiastically. But then enthusiasm seems to be generally in short supply in this blandly entertaining movie.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

10 thoughts on “The Tale of Despereaux

  1. Amy

    I saw this movie on Christmas day with my mother and sister. We were expecting what I think most people were expecting; a good movie about a cute lead character with a happy ending.

    Boy, what a disappointment.

    The title implied that it was about Despereaux, and his self-appointed journey to become a knight worthy of a princess.

    Instead, it was all over the place, going from the rat on the ship, to the chef with the enchanted assistant nobody saw, a depressed king, you name it, Dreamworks threw it in there.

    My sister pointed out, a better title might have been ‘The Tales of Dor’, and I’m inclined to agree.

    I would NOT recommend this movie for anyone with small children. People sitting around us with their kids got up and left (this also happened when the movie ‘Batman Returns’ with Danny DeVito as the Penguin was in theaters), and I can understand why! There are some particularly gross scenes with the rats eating garbage, Roscuro is expected to eat Despereaux when he saves him from the cat, the Queen dies right there on screen…..who the bleep rated this movie as ‘G’?

    What’s the saying? ‘Too many chefs spoil the soup’.

    In this case, too many stories spoiled the movie.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I would NOT recommend this movie for anyone with small children. People sitting around us with their kids got up and left (this also happened when the movie ‘Batman Returns’ with Danny DeVito as the Penguin was in theaters), and I can understand why!…who the bleep rated this movie as ‘G’?

    While I think it’s presumptuous for anyone to decide what’s right for anyone else’s child simply because not all 6-year-olds (or whatever) are created equally in terms of what will or won’t bother them, I’d have to say that there’s nothing in this film that’s any worse than what you’ll find in any “classic” Disney from Snow White through Bambi, Dumbo, Pinocchio, etc.

    However, you get to a very valid point — not so much about ratings as about parents and viewers in general. You cite those outraged parents leaving Batman Returns with their presumably horrified children back in 1992. The thing is this outrage was being directed at a film rated PG-13 — a clear indication that it wasn’t meant for small children. Why do you think they’d likely pay any more attention to the rating on this? Just yesterday, I encountered parents who were simply appalled at the trailers on The Day the Earth Stood Still — a PG-13 rated film they’d taken their small children to.

    I see this sort of thing all the time — and not just on children’s films. I’ve seen shocked viewers want their money back for the Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers because they were offended by the language in it — and yet it says right on the poster that the film is Rated R for strong language. I’ve seen people offended out of Tropic Thunder in a record-setting 30 seconds despite it being “Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material.” The sad fact is that all too many viewers don’t read, don’t pay attention, don’t have even the slightest clue about what they’re going to see — and then blame somebody else rather than their own inattentiveness.

  3. Dionysis

    “The sad fact is that all too many viewers don’t read, don’t pay attention, don’t have even the slightest clue about what they’re going to see—and then blame somebody else rather than their own inattentiveness.”

    Truer words were never written; not only does this characterize the movie-going dimwits, it can be extrapolated to many aspects of our modern life.

  4. neabob

    There’s a really great website called “Kids-In-Mind” http://www.kids-in-mind.com/ that rates movies not only on the G-PG-etc scale, but gives them three number ratings for sex, violence, and language. They also explain everything about why the number rating was given.

    I check it before watching any movies with my kids.

  5. Louis

    “The sad fact is that all too many viewers don’t read, don’t pay attention, don’t have even the slightest clue about what they’re going to see—and then blame somebody else rather than their own inattentiveness.”

    Truer words were never written; not only does this characterize the movie-going dimwits, it can be extrapolated to many aspects of our modern life.

    Tempting though it may be to say so, it’s not a matter of wit — blurred or otherwise. It’s the(im)personal manner, conscious or not, in how human beings fulfill the personal and therapeutic ‘escapism’ movies provide.

    To what purpose does paying for the movie and planting oneself squarely in the dilapidated cinema or sofa seat for 2+ hours serve? — To provide some measure of ‘escapism’, right?

    For many, it seems, ‘escapism’ is tantamount to unwillfull, or worse, willful ignorance. It means that if the filmgoer takes specific knowledge in with them then, on some level, they’re not escaping the reality they want to temporarily leave at the snack or kitchen counter.

    This approach affirms that by virtue of blissful-ignorance complicity — in the disappointing and offensive two dimensional pictures and sounds flickering before their eyes — is jettisoned. It is ‘plausible deniability’. The movie “should be” responsible for being responsible. The filmgoer is, ironically, fulfilling their personal need to enhance the escapist ritual by expending no reality-based preliminary intellectual effort. They’re responsible for being irresponsible — the quintessential tabula rasa. They are, to borrow a line from SHAMPOO, “…at the epitome of their life” when watching a movie.

    Others, myself included, see cinemtaic ‘escapism’ as a path to an endless universe of parallel, dynamic worlds. The more specific knowledge we have about these worlds, the more equipped we are to interpret them and get lost in our own thoughts about them.

    Going to a movie w/o knowing the ’5 Dubyas’ — Who, What, When, Where, & Why — of it seems unimaginable to me. The more questions I get answered, the more I have, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.

    My cinematic ‘escapism’ is born out of my perpetual, insatiable urge to try and make sense of the gaps between: (1)What I know, (2)What I think I know, & (3)What I don’t know. I call it my own personal-politics Axis-of-Upheaval.

    If I ever see W.–the movie–, my axis will probably self-destruct in some sort of bizarro-Superman-reverse-the-earth’s-rotation sort of way.

  6. Ken Hanke

    They are, to borrow a line from SHAMPOO, “…at the epitome of their life” when watching a movie.

    While I would love to discuss this whole concept in greater detail, I haven’t the time just now, but I cannot resist remarking on the prospect of Little Man or Disaster Movie as the epitome of someone’s life. Talk about sad…

  7. Amy

    You did make the better point that people don’t pay attention to what’s really being offered to the viewing public when they take their children to the movies. Also, that Disney puts violent, graphic scenes in their movies too (Pocahontas, The Lion King, Mulan).

    If you go back and reread my review though, my real problem was the way the story jumped around to all the supporting characters instead of focusing on Despereaux. I know what’s going on isn’t all about him, but in the movies I listed above (and the ones you mentioned) the title character is the main focus of the movie. Here he kinda gets lost in the parade of characters.

    As I said before, too many stories spoiled the movie.

    A point that was lost when I ranted about the movie not being right for children.

  8. Mom of 4 year old

    I took my 4.5 yr old to this movie and we left half way through. From the previews there was lots of cute mouse, mild princess…etc. But the movie was very dark compared to the previews. Too dark for a “G” rating, I thought. And why in the world to they advertise trailers for “Bride Wars” with cursing before “G” movies! Arg!

  9. Ken Hanke

    As I said before, too many stories spoiled the movie.

    Yes, I got that. I didn’t disagree with it either, though I would say part of the problem stems from him not being a very compelling character. Another problem for me is that the falling out between Roscuro and him feels very forced and too much there just to serve the plot.

  10. Ken Hanke

    And why in the world to they advertise trailers for “Bride Wars” with cursing before “G” movies! Arg!

    Well, it’s pretty mild cursing — nothing more than you’d hear on TV. All I remember is a reference to the size of Anne Hathaway’s “ass” (or maybe it was to Kate Hudson’s posterior). That’s a personal call. I was never a dialogue policeman when I had a small daughter, so that’s just my take.

    However, I agree that the trailer is inappropriate to the film — this is because theater chains on a corporate level tell individual theaters what trailers to put on movies. (And I’m quite certain this relates to deals cut with the studios.) I deplore the practice because of things like this, and just as much because of the idiocy of promoting things like Friday the 13th on a movie like Doubt. The audiences are pretty much mutally exclusive.

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