Tale of Despereaux, The (United Kingdom/United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Tale of Despereaux, The Poster

As animated films go, The Tale of Despereaux represents adequate family entertainment. The quality is nowhere near the level we have come to expect from Pixar but, since there are no Pixar films in theaters this time of year, The Tale of Despereaux makes an acceptable substitution. It's on par, or perhaps a little better, than Dreamworks' cash-grab, Madagascar 2. Nevertheless, this is not top-flight animation. While the voice acting is fine and the story is nicely paced, the visuals are disappointing. The Tale of Despereaux looks like it was made about 10 years ago and, at a time when even mediocre animated films can generally boast a stunning look, this movie's uninspired animation is a source of disappointment.

The Tale of Despereaux focuses on four characters whose paths cross and whose lives intersect: Despereaux (voice of Matthew Broderick), the courageous mouse; Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), the cultured rat; Princess Pea (Emma Watson), the lonely daughter of the city's ruler; and Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), the servant who dreams of wearing her mistress' tiara. After being banished from Mouseworld for showing un-mouse-like tendencies (such as not cowering, intentionally tripping mouse traps, and speaking to humans), Despereaux decides to embark upon a quest as the Princess' champion and restore sunlight and beauty to a kingdom that has become trapped in grayness. He is joined in this endeavor by an unlikely ally: Roscuro, the rodent inadvertently responsible for the society's current malaise. But the Princess is given more to worry about than the endlessly dreary days when Miggery hatches a personal plot against her.

The animation in The Tale of Despereaux is well below the bar set by 2008's earlier efforts, WALL*E and Madagascar 2. Although there are some cleverly designed sequences that intentionally use two-dimensional, cartoonish images to give life to the stories of chivalry read by Despereaux, the majority of The Tale of Despereaux's visuals are plain and lacking in detail. The backgrounds are devoid of the richness of texture we have come to expect from computer animated movies. Kids probably won't mind - it's not as if the animation is awful and it's light years better than anything found on TV - but discerning adults may be disappointed by what appears to be a step backward.

The strength of the vocal casting mollifies to a degree complaints about the film's look. The filmmakers, Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and longtime animator Robert Stevenhagen, have chosen a group of well-respected character actors to voice their human and animal creations. With the possible exception of Frank Langella (whose gravelly bass is unmistakable) as the rat mayor, none of the actors have distinctive voices, which means that the characters are allowed to exist on their own without being overwhelmed by the actor speaking their words. Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, vocal chameleon Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, and Stanley Tucci all contribute. Sigourney Weaver is easily recognizable, but her only function is to narrate, so it's not an issue.

For a family movie, The Tale of Despereaux has a surprisingly complex plot, with the story beginning aboard a ship then shifting from Mouseworld to Ratworld to the inside of a kitchen within the human castle to a pig farm to a the tower where the lonely princess resides. The transitions are effectively constructed, allowing the movie to flow from one location to the next as it switches from character to character. There are satirical elements, especially within the mouse society, where attributes associated with cowardice are viewed as desirable, and an overall moral about the virtue of forgiveness. The ending is abrupt but, as with the animation, this isn't something that will upset younger viewers.

I have often discussed the difference between a kids' film - a movie that is so tightly focused toward children that older viewers may have difficulty enduring it - and a family film - which blends simplicity and sophistication in a way that broadens its cross-generational appeal. The Tale of Despereaux skews toward the former category. The film raises an interesting question, though: Why are rats, the bringers of the Black Plague and one of the most detested urban pests, suddenly so popular as the heroes of animated films? Then again, the cuddly denizens of Flushed Away, Ratatouille, and The Tale of Despereaux don't resemble their real-life counterparts. If they did, children might not be so charmed by their antics in the animated arena.

Tale of Despereaux, The (United Kingdom/United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2008-12-19
MPAA Rating: "G"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1