Once upon a rodent
The Tale of Despereaux, the new movie from Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning 2004 book, tells a story that will no doubt be familiar to the book’s many fans. For those who haven’t read it, it’s like a return to earliest childhood, when we heard fairy tales for the first time, wondering where these adventures were heading and how they were all going to turn out. The movie’s not perfect, but it’s awfully good, and gets more engrossing as it goes along, leaving a glow of warm satisfaction behind.
The computer-animated Despereaux draws great strength from its all-star voice cast, because, for once (unlike, say, the Madagascar movies), the stars really seem to have been chosen for their voices rather than their names. First among them—literally and figuratively—is Sigourney Weaver, who narrates the story in the stately, gentle manner of a loving mother reading to us at bedtime.
She tells us right off that this is the story of a mouse, and that a mouse is different from a rat, then before we know it we’re off on what seems at first to be a sidetrack about the rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) and how he inadvertently causes the death of the queen of the land of Dor on the very day of Dor’s great Soup Festival.
Rats? Soup? What about the little mouse Despereaux? Adults may be perplexed early on (I certainly was) and kids may fidget (and they did at the screening I attended), but misgivings are allayed as the story becomes interesting on its own terms. Grief for his dead queen plunges the king of Dor into despair; he outlaws rats and neglects his daughter, Princess Pea (Emma Watson), and Dor becomes a blighted land where the sun never shines.
At what seems long last, we meet Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a young mouse born with big ears and eyes wide open, whose daring nature and curiosity are considered conduct unbecoming a mouse (he doesn’t even show a proper fear of cats and carving knives). And finally, in what initially looks another sidetrack, we meet Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), who will prove to be the movie’s last key character. How the paths of Despereaux, Roscuro, Princess Pea and Miggery cross in unexpected ways and lead, in the end, to the redemption of all is the meat of the story, and the source of the satisfaction the movie leaves in its wake.
The story has a kind of primal, childlike sweetness, even as it grows unexpectedly complicated. Directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen capture the sweetness in bold, confident strokes, but they don’t always appear to have the complications of the story under control.
This may be due more to Gary Ross’ script than to any missteps of their own. I don’t share the widespread respect for Ross’ talent (I found Pleasantville a clumsy allegory and Seabiscuit a sullying of Laura Hillenbrand’s great book), so perhaps I’m too eager to blame him. But whoever did it, the movie makes changes in the character of Roscuro that somewhat weaken the structure of the story, and Roscuro’s motivations don’t make as much sense as they probably do in DiCamillo’s novel. This, as much as Hoffman’s distinctive voice, may explain why the persona of “Dustin Hoffman” intrudes more on his character than do those of the other actors. (It is, in fact, a surprise to be reminded at the final credits that we’ve been listening to such major talents as Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Lloyd, Robbie Coltrane and Frank Langella.)
More directly attributable to Fell and Stevenhagen is some of the animation. Minor characters, especially in the crowd scenes, are sometimes sketchy and immobile, in contrast to the often subtle expressiveness of the major characters (the animators of Despereaux and Miggery do particularly fine work).
Well, I said the movie’s not perfect. But Fell, Stevenhagen and Ross get the big things right; they keep reasonable track of their occasionally discursive story and imbue it with a sense of psychological suspense. There may come a time when Despereaux is as well-known and familiar as The Wizard of Oz. But for now, at least, the movie takes us back to the days when we really wondered how (and whether) Dorothy would ever get home.