Dec. 19, 2008
On Saturday this reviewer had the opportunity to be the only unaccompanied adult in a theater full of parents and tots to see the new Universal release The Tale of Despereaux. The movie is an adaptation of the book by Kate DiCamillo, which came highly recommended by my almost 15-year-old son, who had warm memories of it from his youth but who was, apparently, concerned about being seen in a theater filled with children small enough to have to peep at the screen over the back of the seats in front of them. I had no such concern, which tells you something about me. Having not read the book or seen any comments from Ms. DiCamillo before writing my own, I cannot do any comparisons of the experiences of reading and viewing this family fare. First of all, the film is indeed family fare, having no scatological moments and being blissfully free of any references to bodily functions as substitutes for actual wit.
As regards wit, this animated film is strong on both a visual and verbal level, spinning its interest around the trope of a young mouse whose intention to be anything but mousy turns his fear-driven world upside down. Young Despereaux Tilling, the swashbuckling rodent, is physically the most delicate creature in the movie, possessed of both absurdly outsized ears and a romantically outsized nature. He is driven to take on a "quest" that, while executed within the confines of a single castle, has all the scope of Arthurian legend: a lost item of great value (prize soup, in this case), an abject King mourning the loss of his beloved queen, a beautiful princess (voiced by Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame) who waits sadly for the return of both sunlight and rain to her indifferent world, and plotters and villains by the score, including the malevolent and ravenous denizens of "Ratworld," who despise (and relish, with relish) all things mouse-like.
The film is built on the steady virtues of its heroic characters (in addition to Despereaux, there is the morally conflicted rat, Roscuro, heir to a long line of fairy tale figures whose actions result in unintended harm to the established order and unjust banishment) and the destructive ambitions of a jealous servant girl, Miggity Sow, who, it can be charitably said, yearns for a princess-hood that lies beyond her natural endowment. This superbly animated film includes some scenes of genuine menace (cat takes the hindmost) that younger children will remember in their dreams, genuine pathos (the servant girl is handed over as a baby to a mean life that wounds her heart and spurs her acts of cruelty), and genuine tenderness (a princess's gentle kiss) that lingers in the mind.
The voices are supplied by a Hollywood and United Kingdom A-list of talent, and the music, while derivative of other orchestral work, is both professional and appropriate. Sigourney Weaver provides a wry narration that contains much of the film's humor, as do the sequences of Despereaux's fretful parents, who worry that their tiny son's lack of cravenness will undo the pact of timidity that has become their way of life (in this the movie has relevance to elements of our risk-avoidant culture that would ban such things as kickball in the schoolyard). Finally, Despereaux is a reader, and he finds his inspiration in tales of courage and selflessness, written in glorious script with bold illustrations in the style of N.C Wyeth that echo in Despereaux's mind's eye. A film that calls viewers back to the written word, and to what those words can do to evoke images, stir courage and instill virtue, is on the right path to a timeless message.
The Tale of Despereaux contains nothing offensive, is rated G, and has no specific religious content. It opens Friday, December 19 nationwide.