The Tale Of Despereaux

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 19, 2008

Little pitchers have big ears... none more so than a brave young mouse named Despereaux in "The Tale Of Despereaux."
Little pitchers have big ears... none more so than a brave young mouse named Despereaux in "The Tale Of Despereaux."  (Source:Universal Pictures)

As far a animated pictures about brave little mice go, you can't do better than The Tale Of Despereaux. But the film, being a curious cross-section of narrative complexity and top-flight CGI, may be a bit too complicated for little kids. Adults, on the other hand, are likely to enjoy the movie's action-adventure heroics and dark palette of color and mood--not to mention its sense of humor.

"The Tale Of Despereaux," based on a book by Kate DeCamillo, is a modern fairy tale set in an appropriately vague place (a kingdom where soup is the highest culinary art and everyone has British accents) and time (the Middle Ages, more or less; an age of three-masted sailing ships and talking rodents). The instructional subtext of the tale has to do with life's difficult, complex emotional states: how grief can unhinge reasonable people, how forgiveness can heal wounds (Sigourney Weaver's Narrator explains these things in a soothing, motherly voice).

The adventure begins not with Despereaux -- who doesn't enter the picture until things are well underway -- but rather with Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a sailor who happens to be a rat. Excited at finally landing in a kingdom famed for its gourmet soup (and on a high holiday where a new royal soup is about to be introduced, no less) Roscuro forgets himself, throws caution to the wind, and... well, let's just say that he ends up in hot water, with all sorts of chaos breaking out around him. The uproar Roscuro causes leads to a tragedy so devastating that soup is banned from the very kingdom that once celebrated it as a national cuisine (even the King's crown, you'll notice, sports little spoons around the top).

On top of that, the King declares that all rats are to be banished from the kingdom, sending Roscuro (now stranded) scrambling for safety among unsavory company.

Sigourney Weaver's Narrator asks us to consider what happens when a normal, and natural, part of life is decreed verboten by legal decree. Does she mean soup or rats? Perhaps both: in the case of soup, its banishment from the tables and cauldrons of the realm leads to drought and general depression (Andr? the royal chef, voiced by Kevin Kline, is the most depressed of all).

In the case of rats, the result is a thriving, but terrifying, underground community called Rat World, where a villainous Mayor (Frank Langella) does his best to corrupt rat souls. The kind and upright Roscuro is the Mayor's pet project; for the sake of pure evil, the Mayor seeks to twist Roscuro into as corrupt a being as the rest of the persecuted rat community, which lives in darkness and degradation: the ultimate Black Party.

Up in the light and air (both of which are heavy and dark with grief), Princess Pea (Emma Watson) mopes around the castle, a virtual prisoner to her father the King's mourning, attended by her servant Miggery Sow (Tracy Ullman), whose jealousy and ambition are sparked after the princess dismisses her harshly.

Enter Despereaux (Matthew Broderick). He's a young denizen of Mouse World, which is located in a disused store room next to the royal kitchen. Even though the royal chef has little to do these days and never ventures into their realm, the mice remain proudly fearful and timid... all except for Despereaux, that is, who is eager to see what's out there in the world, rather than cowering from it.

This concerns Despereaux's parents, of course, because what proper, upstanding young mouse doesn't cower and scurry? No: their son, they come to realize, isn't like the other mice: he's brave. Every day brings fresh evidence that it's not merely a phase and he's not going to grow out of it. So they do what so much of the silent majority would: they turn their son in to the authorities, who, in turn, banish Despereaux to the underground darkness of the dungeon... and the tender mercies of Rat World.

Eventually, all the strands of the story do weave together, though it takes a while; I started to wonder if the children at the screening I attended were actually following all of this, or whether they'd eaten too much candy and lapsed into sugar comas. Looking around, I saw rapt little faces. The adults may have wondered whether all of this was actually leading to a point, but the kids had surrendered to the story, and they were right to do so: the animation is gorgeous, the voice acting is energetic and plummy without getting too hammy, and there's enough going on with the characters to make their individual journeys engaging.

Courage, honesty, and faith in oneself: those are the usual cardinal virtues of a kid-flick, and of a fairy tale. In the case of young Despereaux, they are also the personal qualities that rescue a princess, restore a kingdom, and repair fractured families.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.