Movie Review: 'The Tale of Despereaux'

Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) has big dreams, and a whole lotta plot to carry on his tiny shoulders.
Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) has big dreams, and a whole lotta plot to carry on his tiny shoulders. (Universal Pictures)
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By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 19, 2008

Considering that "The Tale of Despereaux" opens with a lovable stowaway rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), frigating his way to the not-so-enchanted Land of Dor, allow us to compare subplots to submarines:

You might not notice there are too many around, until your bilge is full of seawater and the horizon is getting higher. And then you get that sinking sensation, as narrative bloat overwhelms your ballast.

Such is the case with the watery "Despereaux," based on the Newbery Medal-winning book by Kate ("Because of Winn-Dixie") DiCamillo. It's a movie that simply has too much of everything, except exactly what it needs: a storytelling technique that grabs kids, holds them, and makes them forget they have to go to the bathroom. Likewise their parents, who are going to need a lot of coffee to stay alert through this ambitiously animated but narcotic undertaking.

It's a beautiful-looking film, and an inevitable object of fascination in a year when cartoon characters have begun to look more and more like Hollywood's salvation (and we don't mean Keanu Reeves in "The Day the Earth Stood Still"). With each major release of an animated epic, the technology seems to improve, animators' grasp catches up to their reach, and the fuzzy animals become more delicately, elegantly, intricately fuzzy. Each large cartoon provides another bread crumb on the trail to where our cinema is headed. Judging by "Despereaux," it will end up aesthetically charmed, but dramatically inert.

Why? Too many stories, none well told. Too much froufrou, not enough substance. The setup is simple enough: "Despereaux's" titular mouse is a big-eared outcast (see: "Dumbo") who has been an embarrassment since birth. He refuses to cower, he refuses to skulk; he won't shrink, slink or do any of the mouselike things he goes to school to learn. Because he has a heroic cast to his character, he's treated as if he's developmentally disabled. His parents are mortified. The community is outraged. Out he goes.

Lest we lead the reader to think that there's something straightforward about this, be aware that the film is already in the middle of Roscuro's story, as well. He's something of an epicurean rodent (see: "Ratatouille"), who has come to the Land of Dor already in thrall to the kingdom's obsession with bisques, bouillons and bouillabaisses: Every year, a new soup is unveiled, to great fanfare and acclaim. But when Roscuro inadvertently drops into the queen's portion of pottage, she takes one long look, has a heart attack and drops dead.

And that's where we start parting company with "Despereaux." The moment is sad. Not in an elevating or cathartic way (see: Bambi's mother), but more in a way that's faux-profound. It doesn't help that narrator Sigourney Weaver is assigned to say things that are often simply inane, such as "a hero doesn't appear until the world really needs one" (really? and?) or making the rather tortured allegation that forgiveness, rather than grief, is the strongest emotion (is forgiveness an emotion?). There's a major striving for grandiosity, when all you really want to know is what the heck is going on.

Directed by Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen, "Despereaux" would seem to have all the devices it needs: Despereaux himself (Matthew Broderick), who finds inspiration in medieval knights' tales; and Roscuro, who would really like to apologize to the princess Pea (young Emma Watson) for killing her mother and turning her father into a quasi-catatonic (whose last coherent act was outlawing both soup and rats from Dor). There's a jailer named Gregory (Robbie Coltrane), who's depressed because he was so poor he had to give his daughter away; there's a serving girl named Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), with a nose like a drain plug, who's depressed because she'll never be a princess (me, too!); there's Andre the chef (Kevin Kline), who's depressed because he isn't allowed to make soup anymore; there's the princess, of course, who wants out of her room, the castle and probably the kingdom; and Roscuro again, who's really upset because when he tried to apologize to Pea, she freaked out, which sent him over to the dark side -- Ratworld, which is ruled by the malevolent Botticelli (CiarĂ¡n Hinds). There are enough upset characters and downbeat narration that it was a miracle more children weren't crying at the show I saw.

As usual with these animated epics, much depends on the vocal performances, and it's a mixed bag. Broderick makes Despereaux sound like a white guy from the suburbs. Hoffman is terrific, just as he was earlier this year in "Kung Fu Panda." Watson makes Pea icily unappealing, but Hinds, William H. Macy and Stanley Tucci give their various rodent characters plenty of personality. None, however, provides enough buoyancy to get one past the structural coral reef that "Despereaux" erects: between its audience and any reason to care.

The Tale of Despereaux (93 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G though there are moments of peril.

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