The Tale of Despereaux
A tale of two critters
It's understandable that the movie with a talking rat running around a Frenchman's kitchen might produce a "Ratatouille" hot flash. And certain close-ups of some of the more stoutly drawn humans might make you wonder when "Shrek" became the going model for out-of-shape cartoon characters. But "The Tale of Despereaux" overcomes enough of what it seems like to be completely enjoyable for what it is: a skillfully managed fairy tale about a mouse, a rat, and fairy tales in general.
This tale begins, more or less, in tragedy. The festive kingdom of Dor turns dour after the queen keels over dead at the sight of a rat in her lunch. The king cancels Soup Day, a holiday bigger than Christmas. He banishes rats. The sun refuses to shine. Think Victor Hugo's France without the rampant starvation. In Dor's recesses and its dungeons, the movie's ambitions come to life: a tale of two rodents who refuse to behave according to the rules of their species, and a poor, chubby country girl (Tracey Ullman) who refuses to behave according to the rules of hers.
Roscuro the rat, with Dustin Hoffman's voice, won't act like a savage. Despereaux, the teeny mouse with big eyes and giant ears who speaks with Matthew Broderick's boyish voice, confounds his genteel family and exasperates all of Mouseworld with his thirsts for literacy, extroversion, and adventure. They both genuinely like humans and find themselves mixed up in separate but interwoven plots to restore Dor and its royal family to their former soup-loving selves. The girl, who winds up inside the kingdom, wants to be princess.
This film has a lot to do, and the directors, Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen, and the screenwriter, Gary Ross, manage to get it all done. They even have time to spare for an excursion to a pig farm and two exuberantly rendered passages with a pot of veggies that magically becomes a farmer's market scaramouche named Boldo (Stanley Tucci). Boldo has a melon head, cherry eyes, garlic bulb joints, and a peapod mouth. Children may not understand a word of what he says, but I'm sure he'll inspire a raft of little eaters to play with their food.
So much of the design for "Despereaux" is so good - not at the
The movie's handsomeness makes it easier to ignore the occasionally enervating absence of sunlight and the possibility of some troublesome identity politics. Ratworld is a putrid ghetto that pulses with the rhythms of Afro-Arabian percussion, and its leader is a long-snouted creature - Botticelli, voiced by Ciaran Hinds - who could certainly have played Nosferatu for F.W. Murnau. Mouseworld, by contrast, is Walton's Mountain. Since neither the rat nor the mouse likes his respective home, no harm is done.
The blueprint for all this is Kate DiCamillo's Newbery Medal-winning book, whose subtitle - "Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread" - deserved some kind of prize in its own right. When the book's title showed up on screen during the closing credits, the audience cheered. I held my applause for Sigourney Weaver's name. Weaver narrates the film, and with all due respect to anyone who ever read me a book, none of you was quite this effortlessly entrancing. None of you sounded quite this wise. It's as though she were perched on the edge of my bed. Weaver might be perfect for recession-era entertainment. Save your shrinking production budgets, give this woman a book, and say, "Action!"
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.