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December 20, 2008

Movie Review – The Tale of Despereaux (2008)


The Tale of Despereaux (2008)

The Tale of Despereaux is a very nice family film about a small (small even by mouse standards) mouse in whom beats the heart of a lion. An animated adaptation of the children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, it is drawn and colored in the style of charming storybook illustrations. Although not really substantive or witty enough to cross over to the general audience, it should please both children and their parents and is a welcome entry in this year’s slate of holiday releases.

Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) is a citizen of Mouseworld, a cozy, homey mouse village situated below the modest castle of the king of the Kingdom of Door and above Ratworld, a dank, dark rat village. A bold and daring little fellow, Despereaux’s curiosity and longing for adventure take him both to the castle, where he meets the kingdom’s beautiful princess, and to Ratworld, where he meets a non-conformist rat named Ruscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffmann).

One of the film’s most appealing aspects is its affirmation of the intrinsic value of storytelling. Taken to the castle library to learn to eat paper, Despereaux reads instead of munching. He becomes absorbed by a grandly romantic tale that is one part Knights of the Round Table, one part Sleeping Beauty. (Scenes from his book are animated in delightful vignettes.) The story brings him great joy and fires his imagination. It also inspires him to emulate its hero: resolving to follow a moral code of courage, truth, and honor, he finds a great quest in the material of his own world. Reading truly enriches his life.

Storytelling also draws people- or in this case, characters- together. His book gives Despereaux the tools to communicate with the princess, and also to understand and empathize with her situation. Likewise, in recounting the story to Ruscuro, Despereaux creates a bond between them that transcends inter-species conflict and gives his new friend the courage to make amends for his past mistakes.

The Tale of Despereaux takes the current Hollywood fad for filling out the voice casts of big-budget animated films with well-known actors to the extreme. The supporting voice cast is a veritable who’s who of famous character actors, including Tracey Ullmann, Christopher Lloyd, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Sigourney Weaver, Ciaran Hinds, Frank Langella, William H. Macy, Robbie Coltrane, and Richard Jenkins. With substantially more recognizable names in the cast than significant characters in the film, it is hard to look at this practice as much else but stunt casting. The negative verdict is reinforced by the fact most of the performers fail to make any impression in their roles. The notable exception is Kline, marvelous as the castle’s over-excitable genius soup chef. Now he I can believe was cast because he was the best choice for the role.

3 stars