THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX is as bold, as brave, and as charming as its eponymous mouse hero. Adapted from the book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, this is an animated film for both kids and adults that is vibrant, complex, and fearless in its depiction of the good, the bad, and the careless in all of us. Superb voice casting, a truly riveting story that avoids the obvious or the cliché, plus animation that is an artistic achievement in its own right make this one of the best offerings of the holiday season.
It doesn’t start with Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), but rather with Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a seafaring rat that, despite the assumptions of even the film’s narrator (Sigourney Weaver), enjoys the sunlight and the fresh air. Roscuro makes port in the kingdom of Dor on Soup Day, which is bigger even than Christmas for the inhabitants. On that day, Chef Andre, with the help of a magical creature made of soup components, creates a soup fit for a king. Literally. Roscuro, in the wrong place at the wrong time and overcome by the divine aroma of the soup accidentally wreaks a fatal sort of havoc. The king, overcome with grief, bans rats and soup from his domain, resulting in a land that turns as gray as the prevailing gloom and the clouds that gather overhead, looming endlessly but never dissipating in rain. Roscuro, his ship having sailed without him, takes refuge in the royal palace’s dungeon-based Ratland, a dark and dangerous place ruled over by Botticeli, a vicious overlord (Ciaran Hinds) and populated by gloom-loving rats with a hankering for blood sports and particularly unappetizing foodstuffs
There’s a reason that Despereaux doesn’t make an appearance until all this has happened. A hero, so the narrator informs us, doesn’t appear until he’s needed. Besides, he has his own issues to deal with. In Mouseland, located deep in the palace walls, he stands out not just for his extremely large ears, nor even for his exceptionally small stature, even for a mouse. No, Despereaux stands out because he doesn’t scurry, except for fun, doesn’t cower at the idea of kitchen knives or even cats, and can’t get the hang of being timid. Perfect for a hero, but bad for a community that insists on everyone following the rules. Instead of eating the books in the palace library, he reads them, filling his head with tales of knightly derring-do, as well as concepts alien to Mouseland’s inhabitants, things like honor, bravery, and chivalry rather than mere survival. When he breaks the biggest rule of all, speaking to the Princess Pea, he’s banished to Ratland, but instead of being eaten right away, he discovers his life’s quest to save the princess, the kingdom, and Roscuro, who’s having his own problems fitting in.
All the elements of the classic hero’s journey are here with no hedging and no talking down to its audience. The army of rats bearing down on Despereaux is terrifying, all red eyes, sharp teeth, and deadly menace. Roscuro’s guilt over the harm he’s done is palpable in the droop of his bright eyes, and the tinge of wistful sadness Hoffman give his voice. But for sheer gut-wrenching terror there is nothing to compare with Despereaux’s rejection by his community, parents included, as he is marched by them all to his banishment and what everyone is convinced will be his certain death. The more metaphorical aspects, the role light plays in the lives of everyone, and even more importantly, doesn’t play, is done with such finesse that younger kids who don’t pick it up won’t miss a thing storywise. Ditto the most important thing that Despereaux says in the course of his adventure. When asked whether he is a man or a mouse, his answer is that he is a gentleman. There are volumes of philosophy in that line and never delivered better nor more economically.
Equally rich in detail is the meticulous rendering of the animation, with a screen overflowing with fanciful and clever details. The vegetable-shaped hats the townspeople wear on Soup Day, the detritus of the human world adapted to the rodent one, and the rendering of characters that is unsentimental but nonetheless endearing, even the piggish face of a palace servant, not pretty to be sure, but somehow perfect as a reflection of her discontent in wanting to be a princess herself.
Sometimes it takes a mouse to show the humans where they’ve gone wrong. In THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX, it takes an atypical mouse that, like the film in which he shines, subverts expectations at every turn, and in the best way possible.