[5 April 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As a rule of cinematic thumb, in the CG genre, there’s Pixar…and then there’s everyone else. Or sure, some studios - Fox, Dreamworks - can claim massive commercial success, and the occasional bit of visual inspiration, but when you weigh the aesthetic qualities of, say, an Incredibles or a Ratatouille against the purely for profit marginalizing of Monsters vs. Aliens or Ice Age, the creative differences are staggering. For some reason, the San Francisco based company recently purchased by Disney for a massive amount of money just can’t do anything wrong. Even their lesser works (at least, in the eyes of some cynics) like Cars and A Bug’s Life beam with imagination and novelty. It would be nice to say that Universal’s recent attempt at capitalizing on the computer for making its cartoons - an adaptation of the children’s book The Tale of Despereaux - was as good as something like Finding Nemo or Wall-E. Instead, it’s merely a small step above other fairy tale attempts like Shrek, or Hoodwinked.
In the kingdom of Dor, soup is everything. There is even a yearly celebration of all things broth and stew. But when a visiting rat named Roscuro accidentally frightens the Queen to death, the King bans all soup and all vermin. For some reason, this causes his entire country to suffer under relentless dark clouds and endless, agonizing drought. Even his usually jovial daughter, Princess Pea, longs for happier times. In the meanwhile, Roscuro finds himself exiled to the dungeon, where he takes up with the rest of the rat population. He eventually meets a little mouse named Despereaux Twilling who, unlike the rest of his kind, doesn’t scurry or cower in the presence of people. Curious to a fault, this tiny critter with the massive ears and a giant heart befriends the Princess. He promises to help her. But when an ugly servant girl betrays her Highness, the rats decide to get even. It is up to the unlikeliest of heroes to help.
Like the title character in the story it tells, The Tale of Despereaux (new to DVD) is a noble effort that more or less manages to create a kind of instantly likable post-modern fable. Unlike previous narratives set in those mystical lands “once upon a time”, Kate DiCamillo’s yarn is all about bravery, loyalty, courage, and forgiveness. If it wasn’t set inside a visually striking cartoon realm, we’d swear we were watching some clichéd After School Special. With an interesting vocal cast including the good (Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman), the bad (Matthew Broderick, Tony Hale) and the just plain weird (Dustin Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Christopher Lloyd), co-directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen try desperately to make this universe appear pulled from an intricate hand scrolled manuscript. The colors are washed out and tinged with gold, the character design drawn directly from old Victorian sketches and full physical exaggeration.
And for a while, it works. We get drawn into the details of Dor, sit astonished at the intricacies of the similarly styled Mouse and Rat Worlds. We marvel at the framing and composition, enjoying the forced perspective of seeing everything from a tiny rodent’s point of view. Sure, we sometimes have to overlook some less than articulate movement on behalf of the characters (the film was rushed into production, with only two years to complete it), and there are times when the facial work is so realistic it’s almost scary (this is especially true of Robbie Coltrane’s grieving jailer Gregory). Yet just as we are prepared for something seminal, just as Fell and Stevenhagen appear poised to deliver something really epic, The Tale of Despereaux remembers its ‘educational’ themes and resorts to retelling them over and over again. It doesn’t help that narrator Sigourney Weaver is on hand to hammer them home as well.
Besides, Broderick’s onscreen doppelganger isn’t much of a main subject. He seems passive and unwilling to participate until the end, allowing aspects of the story to shift wildly out of sync before jumping in to join the fun. Instead, Despereaux is rather self-indulgent, his supposed non-conformist bent meant to hide what appears to be a rather arrogant streak. And since Broderick’s voice is as meek as the kind of animal he’s essaying, things grow even more “mousy”. Kids will adore his cute, cuddly body and big, billowing ears, and adults will find little wrong with this G-rated fare (aside from a decidedly dark turn once Despereaux is sent to Ratworld to be “eaten”). But when you sit down and compare it with other efforts currently flooding the family film market, this is one tale that just can’t hold its own.
Then there is the subplot involving the slightly deaf servant girl who’s jealously fuels the final act’s manipulative mechanics. Expertly voiced by Ullman, she’s still an obvious plot device used to manufacture unnecessary sympathy and a villainous patsy. Indeed, we wonder what she has to do with the story initially, that is until Weaver works us over again with one of her proverbial passages that just scream “important”. But when she ends up being a quasi-antagonist, brainwashed by Roscuro to take the Princess hostage, everything starts to fall apart. Oddly enough, anyone who is a fan of DiCamillo’s book will probably wonder if anything is left of the original. A quick glance at the tome’s narrative indicates significant departures here - clearly to keep the wee ones from having to experience anything like death, fear, anger, or despair.
Indeed, with its minimal bonus features and all-empowerment narrative, The Tale of Despereaux is like a new age version of a great Grimms idea. It neuters anything that could have made the movie memorable and instead goes for wholesome goodness and gold-lined imagery. That’s not to say that the results are bad, just occasionally boring. Unlike its perfectionist peers at Pixar, or the mass marketing mantras of Fox and Dreamworks, Universal wants to have it both ways. They will take a title that offered it own unique and complicated take on the qualities that make a hero and dressed it up in PC pronouncements and the best of touchy-feely intentions. Again, you will be entertained during the relatively brief running time. But like the moviemaking maxim says, there’s the best, there’s the bad, and then floating somewhere around in the middle is the bearable. The Tale is Despereaux is more than that - but not much more.