The Tale of Despereaux (review)
Mouse and Man
He is a mouse. He is tiny — even for a mouse. He is smart and brave. He longs for adventure. He is a gentleman. He is adorable.
You’d think there wouldn’t be any more lovely stories to be told about cute furry creatures who defy odds and challenge their basic natures and embrace danger and find love and celebrate honor and integrity and do it all from the confines of a cartoon. But there’s at least one more, for The Tale of Despereaux is an absolute delight, sweetly inventive and surprisingly dark and dedicated to making you forget how many times we’ve seen similar stories before — so many times this year alone, in fact — with its wit and cleverness and its postmodern hipness to our familiarity with these kinds of tales.
Of the many things to embrace in this charming movie, the animation is what stands out for me. It is luminous in a way that computer cartoonery rarely achieves, eschewing photorealism for the stylized yet organic look of the kind of illustration we more typically find in children’s storybooks. (I’m reminded particularly of the drawings of legendary illustrator Chris Van Allsburg.) I don’t think I’ve had my breath taken away merely by the look of an animated movie like this since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, when computer animation itself was just starting to show us what it could do, and how it could be used in the furtherance of storytelling. There’s a feeling of something like revelation to Despereaux, too, in how the beauty and poignancy of a simple drawing can deepen your love for a character. Something as perfect ordinary as the moistness of Despereaux’s pink little mouse nose makes him huggably real.
The storybook look is perfectly apt for this story, too, with its knowing nods toward fairy-tale conventions and audience expectations. I have not read the Kate DiCamillo book [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] upon which the movie is based, but if Sigourney Weaver’s (Wall-E, Baby Mama) self-referential narration isn’t actually picking up the author’s tone, then it certainly does the job of convincing us we’re being read a story by someone who knows how impatient we’d get with a standard fairy tale, because we’ve read more than enough of those already. It’s almost like the Grandfather of The Princess Bride were reading to us, tailoring the story to our particular needs… and in fact, with its undercutting of narrative conceits at the same time that it employs them, Despereaux is very much like The Princess Bride, but without the snark.
Not that everything is nice here, either. One tradition of fairy tales that has not been thrown overboard is the darkness. Man, this is grimmer than I would expected from a cute-little-mouse movie! Despereaux’s (the voice of Matthew Broderick: Bee Movie, The Producers) own story of being pushed into typical mousy conformity of terror and cowering and embracing a fear of life is the least of it: he cheerfully refuses to be a proper mouse in favor of a quest for adventure, even as he is banished — !! — from Mouseworld to Ratworld for his crimes. Despereaux’s resilience and fortitude in the face of some very awful prospects is thoroughly inspiring.
It is expected by Despereaux’s elders that he shall be eaten by rats in his banishment, and Ratworld is indeed nightmarish (though ingeniously pirate-y, in contrast to the pleasant village-y feel of Mouseworld). Despereaux’s newfound friendship with the rat Roscuro (the voice of Dustin Hoffman: Kung Fu Panda, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium) takes a sinister turn, however, when Roscuro suffers a… well, a disappointment. Disappointment and bitterness looms large in the concurrent tale of the girl Miggery (the voice of Tracey Ullman: Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride), a servant in the castle under which Mouseworld and Ratworld exist: she is jealous of the beautiful but sad Princess Pea (the voice of Emma Watson: Ballet Shoes, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and resentful of the hardship of her own life.
I hesitate to reveal too much of a story that is less predictable than you’d expect, one that takes turns more driven by emotion than action (though there’s plenty of action, too). All these stories come together in the end, of course, but they’re joined by feeling, some of it sour and some of it soaring and all of it as authentic as can be. And as a movie, The Tale of Despereaux very much shares the sense of discovery you get from reading a book. As tiny Despereaux takes long walks across the pages of big books in order to read their tales of noble quests, so do we share that notion of questing ourselves to learn Despereaux’s. And that is a wonderfully startling feeling indeed for a movie to leave you with.