Reel Opinions

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux

It's been almost a full day since I saw The Tale of Despereaux, and I still find myself of two seperate minds regarding the film. On one hand, the movie has a handsome old-world fairy tale look to it that I quite admired. Its hero is also quite charming. Despereaux is a mouse who is very small (yes, even by mouse standards) but has ears so large that even Dumbo would comment on them. I also admired the fact that the movie brushes aside recent tradition of fast-paced CG cartoons, and takes its time telling a sweet and simple fable. And yet, at the same time, I don't know how this movie will play with kids. Despite its G-rating, the movie is pretty somber, doesn't have a lot of laughs (this is intentional, for once), and actually holds a fairly complicated plot for a children's movie. There's also some stuff I still don't understand, like the magical man made out of vegetables who pops up now and then. I'm still trying to figure that one out.

Some of my confusion probably has to do with the fact that I have not read Kate DiCamillo's acclaimed children's novel that the film is based on. The story is set in the kingdom of Dor, where everyone used to be happy, and soup was so celebrated that it had its own holiday. One year on that holiday, the kingdom's finest chef presented his latest soup creation to the king and queen, only to have a rat (who was only trying to smell the creation) fall into the soup. The queen was so startled by the rat that she died of a heart attack. Due to his grief, the king banished soup and had all rats and mice forced underground. Since that day, Dor has fallen into sadness. The skies are constantly gray, but it never rains so nothing can grow. The villagers have fallen into depression, the king does nothing but long for his dead wife, and his daughter Princess Pea ( voiced by Emma Watson, from the Harry Potter franchise) sits in her room looking out the window, wishing things could be like they were before.

An unlikely hero comes in the form of little Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), who lives beneath the kingdom in "Mouseworld". Despereaux is different from all the other mice, because he is brave, does not scurry, and is not afraid of the things mice are supposed to be afraid of. While exploring the castle up above, he comes across a book that tells stories of brave knights and fair princesses. He decides he wants to be like the heroes of the story, and when he hears the real Princess Pea's story of sadness, he decides he will become her "gentleman" and help her restore happiness to the kingdom. When his fellow mice learn that he has been going above and talking with humans, he is banished and sent to "Ratworld", which exists even further down below the land of the mice. Despereaux finds the rats to be scheming and greedy creatures, except for one - the same rat who accidentally caused the death of the queen, and is truly sorry for his actions (Dustin Hoffman). The mouse and rat decide they will work together to fix their relations with the humans above. As for the Princess, she has her own problems in the form of Migerry Sow (Tracy Ullman), a servant girl who dreams of being royalty herself, and will go to any means to achieve her goal, even if it means working with the scheming rats.

I liked the leisurely way that directors Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Rob Stevenhagen, along with the screenplay by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), set up the story and introduce us to the world it's set in. The title hero does not appear until a good 20 minutes into the movie, but I did not feel impatient and was enjoying the art style and look of the film. The movie is animated in CG, but its use of warm colors give it a sort of old fashioned look to it. The movie charmed me even more when Despereaux was introduced, and we got to see the world of the mice. The scenes featuring the school for mice (where kids learn to be afraid) were cute, and the design of the underground world was so imaginative, I wish I could have seen more of it. Despereaux is also an immediately likable little hero, with his large ears and even larger heart and soul. Broderick's spirited voice performance only adds to the character's charm. What impressed me the most were the complex relationships the characters hold. The synopsis above did not mention certain twists of the plot that surprised me in a movie that supposedly caters mainly to children.

Besides the actors listed above, the film's voice cast also includes Frank Langella, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Christopher Lloyd, Stanley Tucci, Robbie Coltrane, and Signourney Weaver, who narrates the tale like a mother telling a bedtime story. (Which is appropriate here.) This is one of the few times when an animated film's all-star cast does not act as a hindrance, as many are not instantly recognizable. Therefore, we're not playing a game of "guess the voice", we're concentrating on the story at hand. Many of the actors disappear into their roles, and while some voices are instantly recognizable (like Broderick and Hoffman), I truly did not know who played many of the characters until the end credits informed me. In a way, this helps with the illusion of making the animated characters seem more real. It's something I wish other animated films (especially those out of Dreamworks) would apply more often.

And yet, the entire time I was admiring the film, a nagging question was in the back of my mind - Will children like it? While the movie is never inappropriate, it does contain some dark imagery. The rats lounge on human skulls and decaying corpses, and are so vicious that when they get a hold of Princess Pea, they tie her down and plot to eat her alive. The entire movie also has a surprisingly somber and very serious tone to it. While some of the characters look cute, they deal with issues such as death, depression, and isolation. All this, and the film's leisurely pace may turn some kids (and maybe some adults, expecting a fast-paced laugh-a-minute comedy) off. Some character motivations also seem kind of sketchy. Dustin Hoffman's rat character has such rapid changes of heart during the course of the story, it's somewhat comical. Still, I have to remember the filmmakers were working with a roughly 90 minute running time, whereas the author of the original story had hundreds of pages.

The Tale of Despereaux should please most parents and patient children, and is definitely a tremendous step up from last weekend's junky Delgo. You get the sense that the filmmakers were not trying to make a big Pixar spectacle, or a fun-filled Dreamworks movie. They were just trying to tell a charming and old fashioned fable about loyalty, friendship, and other values. Judging by this scale, they have succeeded. Just like its hero, this is a small movie with a very big heart, and a surprising amount of intelligence to back it up.

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