The Tale of Despereaux
Rat Pack: An impressive array of animated characters inhabits The Tale of Despereaux.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Haven’t we heard this one before? Cute, French-inflected, animated rodents running around kitchens and getting into comic scrapes for essentially noble reasons? Last year’s Ratatouille used that formula successfully in the story of a misunderstood rat whose ambition to become a great chef led to outrageous situations – instead of calling the board of health, the humans crowned Remy the king of cuisine. It was one of the most charming films of 2007 as well as a box office hit.
Now along comes The Tale of Despereaux, another animated fantasy featuring another army of rats and mice with names like Andre and Antoinette, infesting another kitchen and doing things like plopping into soup bowls at the most inopportune time. But that’s where the two diverge. In Despereaux, a mischievous rat fresh off a sailing ship and in search of a good meal accidentally lands in the soup bowl of the queen of the Kingdom of Dor, and instead of chomping on him – his name is Roscuro and he’s voiced by Dustin Hoffman – the queen abruptly falls face first into her bowl, dead of shock. Gloom then descends on the Kingdom of Dor and particularly upon Princess Pea (voice of Emma Watson, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series), the sun hides and there is no rain. The royal chef is even ordered to stop cooking soup.
That’s a depressing beginning for a fairy tale about a juvenile mouse discovering romance – with a human, yet – while remaining true to his conceptions of honor, justice and truth, but the diminutive Despereaux Tilling (Matthew Broderick), who lives in the castle and who is small even for a mouse, turns the tale of woe into a story of personal triumph. The release, directed by Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Robert Stevenhagen (animator on The Road to El Dorado) from a screenplay by writer Gary Ross (Pleasantville), certainly bears a superficial resemblance to Ratatouille, but it’s a better film in several ways.
Young Despereaux is the despair of everyone in Mouseworld because of his fearlessness. He stubbornly refuses to scurry or cower, but more from natural curiosity and openness than from a sense of bravado. In giant close-ups with perfect, more-than-anthropomorphic details of whiskers, teeth and even the pores on his skin, Despereaux could be the cutest cartoon critter since, well, maybe ever. You’d have to go back to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse ’toon, Brave Little Tailor (1938), in which Mickey subdues a fearsome giant, to find a pluckier, more likable little guy. Despereaux simply cannot learn to be afraid.
Des’ fate is bound up with those of a large pack of vivid characters voiced by an impressive cast of actors, and the animations caricature still other actors. For instance, the Princess is a dead ringer for Julie Delpy while green-suited Botticelli, villainous leader of the rats (voice of Ciarán Hinds), is vintage Donald Sutherland. The socially conscious subplot about a coarse-featured peasant girl named Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman) who secretly longs to be a glamorous princess harks back to the Shrek films, artwork and all. Portraying various rats, mice, and suitably grotesque humans are William H. Macy, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Robbie Coltrane and Frank Langella – not a bad cast for a live-action movie.
If the folksy, amber-toned Mouseworld resembles a miniature Provence, the chaotic dungeon kingdom of Ratworld could only be Bangkok, with a touch of Nero’s Rome. There’s a rat-size coliseum where they stage gladiatorial combats with a fat, agitated cat.
Long before the rat-led insurrection tries to overthrow the king and Despereaux declares his love for Princess Pea, we’re completely enchanted by the artwork, the voice characterizations and the story elements, even though we’ve seen versions of them before. One look into Despereaux’s face is all it takes.
THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX (3) Directed by Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen.• Starring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, and Stanley Tucci. • G, 87 min • Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.