So Damn Cute, No Wonder I Wanna Puke
The Tale of Despereaux / Agent Bedhead
Film Reviews | December 22, 2008 | Comments ()
At first glance, The Tale of Despereaux, with its rodents and overwrought culinary themes, sounds more familiar than it really turns out to be. This isn’t the story of the film industry’s eagerness to replicate the success of Ratatouille. Instead, The Tale of Despereaux, directed by Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Robert Stevenhagen (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), is Universal’s adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s 2004 Newbery Medal-winning novel. The Tale of Despereaux is brought to life through respectable computer-animation that doesn’t mistake itself for the wizardry of WALL-E but, instead, relies almost exclusively on a subdued method of storytelling that would cause the Brothers Grimm to beam in something resembling pride. Indeed, this is quite the darkened tale of a two gentleman, an atypical rat and an even more unorthodox mouse, who become unlikely friends and unite for a most noble cause.
The Tale of Despereaux is a rather complex story of courage, grief, longing, forgiveness, and a pair of rodent friends who, together, seek to right a set of wrongs that occur when something natural is banished from the human world. This film suffers and prospers from its own twin sword, that is, it fails to conform to the usual holiday children’s fare. In addition, the film lacks those ubiquitous twin principles of irony and deconstruction to form a typically charming story with a prepackaged happy ending. Naturally, I found the utter lack of contemporary pop-culture references to be rather refreshing, since all of those whipper-snapper allusions have gone into overkill, not only throughout the entirety of cinema, but, in particular, within children’s films. In the past, I’ve knowingly courted some heat by speaking of animated films’ over reliance upon pop-culture references, but, speaking as a parent, when these films eventually come out on DVD and are played into the triple digits, that shit gets old. So, forgive me for speaking of the virtues of a more timeless tale that takes great care to place value upon its own merits instead of scoring brownie points by mentioning so many other kick-ass stories in the process. Of course, The Tale of Despereaux does weave in a few references to older works, but these nods are subtle and far from overdone.
At the beginning of the tale, we don’t meet the titular character but, instead, a pirate rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), who loves the sunlight and fresh air and would much rather partake of soup than chow down upon a mouse. So, on the most important holiday of the year, Soup Day, the ship that Roscuro travels upon arrives in the kingdom of Dor, where the masses await the annual revealing of a new recipe from the legendary Chef Andre (Kevin Kline) and his assistant, an anthropomorphic pile of vegetables named Boldo (Stanley Tucci). Unfortunately, Roscuro accidentally sets off a chain of events that lead to the queen’s death, and the poor rat is forced to flee for his own life. His escape route leads him underground to the castle dungeon, otherwise known as “Ratworld” and presided over by the deliciously malicious rat leader Botticelli (Ciarán Hinds). In mourning over the queen’s death, the king outlaws all soup and rats from the Kingdom of Dor, which falls into perpetual gloom without even the occasional bit of sunshine or rain. As a result, the sensitive Princess Pea (Emma Watson) begins to feel trapped and consumed with longing for all that was lost.
As Roscuro discovers that he has little in common with the rest of his species, a curious phenomenon reveals itself above ground. An unusually tiny (and cute as hell) mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) is born, and his unusually large ears allow him not only a heightened sense of hearing but also the occasional Dumboesque glide. These differences pale in comparison to the more damning ones: Despereaux doesn’t cower or scurry. He isn’t afraid of cats, and, instead of recognizing the inherent danger of a carving knife, he calls it “beautiful” and wants to know “Do you have any more?” Rest assured, this is not a sociopathic mouse, for his fascination with knives is due to their resemblance to the swords carried by the gentlemen in those library books of which he’s grown quite fond. Despereaux digs these stories of truth, justice, courage, and sword-fighting, but, since he has failed to properly chew and destroy these books, and, even worse, he has spoken to a human, the mice banish him. The little mouse is forced into a dark hole that ends at Ratworld, where his fate first crosses with that of Roscuro.
These two main characters, Despereaux and Roscuro, weave in and out of each other’s tales for the duration of the film. In addition, other parallel and intersecting storylines, including those of Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman) and jailer Gregory (Robbie Coltrane), are interlaced within the whole. The overall result can be rather confusing for those children with lesser attention spans, but, for those with more patience, a gorgeous yet slightly warped braid of awesomeness appears towards the end of the film. To facilitate the ride and provide some clarity, the filmmakers interject several 2D old school sequences, which are used as a rather effective narrative device. Further adding to the seamlessness of The Tale of Despereaux is a host of actors to take care not to overpower their roles, with the exception of Sigourney Weaver as a detached yet distracting Narrator. Otherwise, Hoffman keeps to his Kung Fu Panda standard as the best of the bunch; Kline and Tucci are only as overdone as their culinary roles require; and Ullman, Broderick, and Watson are appropriately subdued and competent.
Overall, this film leaves me with the same personal satisfaction I found after watching Igor. However, this statement also bears a similar cautionary note. At times, The Tale of Despereaux is overtly bleak, but the film ends on an appropriately positive note that doesn’t automagically tie all ends happily. So, this is not the ideal choice for families who are looking for a mere lighthearted seasonal diversion but, instead, more of an adventure for the more grownup kids or even actual adults. The lessons taught within the film are quite worthy, but, even in the case of mature children, expect to spend about 30 minutes talking things over with them afterwards. If you’re exhausted from all that holiday shopping, don’t take this one on just yet with the children, but make it a date night instead.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.