(Universal) Starring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Robbie Coltrane, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Ciaran Hinds. Directed by Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen
It is far easier to judge someone on the way they look than on the way they act. It is also not uncommon for people of smaller stature to be overlooked. Still, it’s not the size of the mouse in the fight but the size of the fight in the mouse.
The kingdom of Dor is a wonderful, magical place ruled by a king and queen who are kind and generous. The best thing about Dor, however, is its soup. Chef Andre (Kline) is a genius, concocting new and wondrous creations that are famous far and wide. At the annual spring festival, Andre debuts a new creation that is shared by every citizen. Roscuro (Hoffman) is a shipboard rat with a taste for the good life. Curious about this wonderful soup, he hangs out at the ceremony in which the soup is tasted for the first time by the King and Queen. Unfortunately, Roscuro sets into motion events that cause tragedy for the kingdom and will cause an animosity between humans and rats that is so severe that the very sunshine is taken from Dor, leaving it drab and grey.
Into this world is born Despereaux Tilling (Broderick), a mouse half the size of his peers but with gigantic ears that more than make up for his lack of height. His parents and teachers do their best to teach Despereaux to be timid and fearful, survival instincts for every mouse. He reads stories of brave and noble knights and longs to be like them.
His refusal to adhere to mouse behavior and to actually contact a human – and not just any human, the sad and deluded Princess Pea (Watson) herself – leads to his exile. Once away from the mouse city he makes his way to the rat city where he befriends Roscuro. Despereaux’s quest to save the Princess inspires Roscuro, but her rejection of him leads him on a road of destruction and rage that may ultimately cause further catastrophe.
What is most intriguing about this movie is not so much the story which is pedestrian (although based on four Newberry Award-winning books by Kate DiCamillo) but the animation which is very different than what we are getting. It looks like an illustration come to life but with a life-like quality, particularly to the mice and rats. There is a rich detail in the animation that stacks up nicely to some of the better work of Pixar; indeed, this is some of the most complex, detailed animation ever seen.
There is some very good vocal work. Hoffman channels Ratso Rizzo in his performance and you get the impression that he was having a great time. Ullman also has some great moments as a scullery maid who dreams of being a princess and plays an important role in Roscuro’s revenge. There is also solid work from Broderick, Kline, Hinds as a scheming rat, Tucci as a magical being who assists Chef Andre and Weaver as the film’s narrator.
There is definitely a sense that this is meant for smaller children than larger ones, but there is so much heart in the movie that it’s easy to overlook that focus. There are moments of humor that are offbeat and surprising enough adults may wind up appreciating more than their tykes. However, one of the things I found most enchanting was the worlds of the rats and mice that are created – each with a distinctive look that thoughtfully echoes the philosophy of each race.
Once upon a time, magic and charm was enough for a movie to get by. These days we seem to look for a lot more. Granted, something like Up or Wall-E deserve more critical acclaim because they take chances with their stories that The Tale of Despereaux simply doesn’t take, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good movie. This is a movie that does the heart good and leaves you with a warm feeling not unlike a batch of cookies fresh from the oven baked by someone who loves you.
WHY RENT THIS: This is a movie that is breezy and full of heart with an offbeat sense of humor that adults may like as well. Some superb vocal acting, particularly from Hoffman, Ullman and Coltrane.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The animation is more like a painting than what animated features are doing right now; this might be off-putting to some less adventurous kids. The movie is a bit heavy on the fluff and light on the substance.
FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of jeopardy but nothing any child can’t handle.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despereaux was originally to be voiced by Justin Long until the producers settled on Matthew Broderick.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interactive map of the Kingdom of Dor that allows for descriptions of characters and places, an amusing featurette called Ten Uses for Oversized Ears and a pair of interactive games on the DVD. There is also a card creator on the Blu-Ray edition.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu