The Tale of Despereaux (2008)

This review of The Tale of Despereaux was originally published at Christianity Today.

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Kate DiCamillo’s book The Tale of Despereaux is an enchanting story about a mouse with the heart of a hero. Already considered a classic, this Newberry Award winner is a favorite of families and children’s librarians everywhere.

And now The Tale of Despereaux — or something vaguely resembling it — is a movie. Director Sam Fell is no stranger to rodents; he directed Dreamworks’ Flushed Away. But where Flushed was a cartoon caper, Despereaux is a poetic work of children’s literature that deserves a place alongside such classics as Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, White’s Charlotte’s Web, and Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Fell and his co-director Rob Stevenhagen respect their source enough to illustrate it with lush and extravagant animation. Newcomers accustomed to frantic, frivolous, disposable family fare are likely to be surprised and enthralled.

But what about DiCamillo’s fans? Is this Tale what they’ve dreamed of seeing on the big screen?

Not exactly. This is more like Despereaux on Steroids—a sprawling, complicated, schizophrenic tale that may be the strangest family film since Babe: Pig in the City.

It’s a simple story: Despereaux is born an eccentric mouse with enormous ears. Breaking the rules that all good mice follow — Cower! Scurry! Be afraid!—he follows his super-sized heart right up into the palace, where the beautiful Princess Pea, lonely and sad, is trapped in the gloom brought on by the loss of her mother, who died of shock when she found a rat in her soup. Smitten by this broken-hearted beauty, Despereaux’s inner White Knight awakens. He vows to honor and serve the princess.

But fraternizing with humans brings a harsh judgment: Despereaux’s fellow mice sentence him to hard time in “Ratworld,” a festering underworld where the hateful rats—exiled for scaring the queen to death—are plotting and conspiring.

Meanwhile, one of the princess’s servant girls — the unfortunately named Miggery Sow — is cooking up hatred of her own, jealous of the princess’s glory. And before you know it, Princess Pea is a damsel in distress, and it’s up to Despereaux to save the day and reconcile the Kingdom of Dor with Roscuro the rat—the rodent who accidentally fell into the soup and changed the course of history.

Most of this narrative has made it to the screen intact, illustrated with astonishing artistry that feels like a different art form than the three-dimensional razzle-dazzle of Pixar. Where Disney’s style is crisp and shiny, Framestore Feature Animation makes us feel we’ve gone to the Louvre and walked right into paintings by Vermeer or Brueghel, scenes of breathtaking subtlety and texture.

(And by the way, if anybody tells you that Despereaux steals from Pixar’s Ratatouille, they’re wrong. This story’s been around since long before Remy ever ventured into the kitchen. But isn’t it a fascinating coincidence that the villains in both pictures are fashioned to resemble Nosferatu?)

Despereaux’s characters are uniquely memorable, and enlivened by a perfect cast. Dustin Hoffman makes Roscuro the Rat both pathetic and sym-pathetic. Ciarán Hinds brings out the malevolent beast in Botticelli. Emma Watson (Hermione in the Harry Potter films) is enchanting as the delicate beauty Princess Pea. Among the many fine talents, Richard Jenkins stands out as the Principal of Despereaux’s school, and Tracey Ullman makes the strongest impression of all, playing the disconsolate pig herder Miggery Sow.

Voiced by Matthew Broderick, Despereaux himself has youthful charm and panache to spare. He’s the perfect choice to play this miniature champion.

And what a charming champion he is. Few animated characters rival Baby Despereaux’s cuteness factor. The scenes of his education in just how mice should cower before all the things that should scare them are some of the film’s most hilarious and delightful sequences.

But he’s not exactly the Despereaux of the book. That impetuous spark of a character has become something almost brash, a laughing, leaping swashbuckler. In the book, his love for music awakens him to the beauty of Princess Pea’s human world; in the movie, he seems to have lost all interest in the “honey” of the king’s melancholy guitar.

But two of Despereaux’s most important characteristics—courage and his chivalry—are here in vivid color. With his belt of red thread and his sewing-needle sword, he’s a knight worthy of Arthur’s Round Table, as gallant as any big screen hero we’ve seen in Narnia or Middle Earth. DiCamillo’s book began with his unforgettable entrance, and readers fell in love, ready to follow him anywhere.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers weren’t entirely faithful to the original story. They introduce a kind of magic to the Kingdom of Dor that’s nowhere to be found in the book. A bizarre new character made entirely of vegetables, “Boldo the Italian Soup Genie,” is likely to have DiCamillo’s fans scratching their heads—though the author herself was allegedly part of the filmmaking process from beginning to end, according to writer/producer Gary Ross. The Genie, inspired by the paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, may seem like an unwelcome party-crasher who distracts us from Despereaux. He’s sprouted from another magic kingdom altogether.

Alas, Despereaux’s become just one character on a very crowded stage. The movie might as well have been called The Tale of Roscuro. It feels more like a movie about a troubled kingdom and the redemption of a fallen rat, than it does about a mouse who shows the world what courage and nobility are all about.

What went wrong? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Sylvain Chomet, director of The Triplets of Belleville, was helming this project till he was fired two years ago. Perhaps his surrealist tendencies explain some of the film’s outlandish departures from the novel; the bizarre Soup Genie, for one, was Chomet’s invention. Those surreal elements seem to be from a different movie than the scenes of conventional, action-movie set pieces. (How many chase scenes through the castle do we need? How many battles in a rat-packed Colosseum? I half-expected Despereaux, when fighting a nasty feline in the ring, to turn and shout Russell Crowe-style, “Are you entertained?!”)

Thus, in the parlance of soup making, there’s a lesson here: There were too many cooks in the Dorian kitchens. They overstuffed the soup pot, and overcooked the soup. Competing storylines have made this a jumbled storybook, drawing our attention away from that delicate, central thread about Despereaux’s ministry to the broken and the botched.

That’s too bad, because the elements of DiCamillo’s book that the filmmakers did preserve should have been plenty for a thoughtful film. “What happens when you make something illegal that is just a natural part of the world?” asks narrator Sigourney Weaver. What a provocative question. What happens when people repress, censor, or outlaw good things—like flavor, colors, pleasure, and imagination—for fear of the consequences? The answer is obvious: People will suffer until someone comes along to show them the way.

Thus, it isn’t hard to find glimmering strands of what C. S. Lewis called “the myth that was also the truth.” Into this broken Mouseworld, a hero is born. He seems to be lowly, meek, and humble. But he can read a higher language. He’s tuned in to a heavenly music. He has eternity written in his heart. He will show his fellow mice how to rise up and be what they were meant to be. He will descend into darkness, bringing hope for salvation to those prisoners who long for the light.

So it is a little disconcerting when the narrator dips a ladle into the rich bouillabaisse and draws out a revelation that is altogether tasteless. She solemnly observes that a simple misunderstanding can lead to all kinds of trouble, and we nod in agreement. But then she suggests that all of this disrepair can be redeemed by the power of … good luck??

What does luck have to do with anything? Didn’t we just see a story about courage, chivalry, imagination, forgiveness, and grace?

I’m sorry, Good Narrator, but The Tale of Despereaux has much grander blessings than Good Luck on its mind. If ever there was an occasion for the word “Grace” or “Providence,” this was it.

We may now never see the movie that captures the delicate grace of DiCamillo’s wonderful story. It’s as though a simple, elegant model has been taken to pieces and reinvented into something wild, startling, and strange.

Don’t get me wrong: The Tale of Despereaux on Steroids is still a delightful, entertaining time at the movies. But reader, you are encouraged — nay, exhorted — to first seek out The Tale of Despereaux in your local bookstore. This treasure of a character deserves the same respect we show to the heroes of Stuart LittleMrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHThe Rescuers, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle — all inductees into the Mighty Mouse Hall of Fame.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.


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