From its start, The Tale of Despereaux seems to want it more than one way. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s 2004 Newbery Medal-winning book, the movie declares its focus to be a “brave little mouse who loved honor and justice and always told the truth.” But the figure on screen, says, the narrator (Sigourney Weaver), is “not him.” Instead, this skinny, raggedy fellow is a rat. And, as the film goes on to show, rats and mice are very different. For instance, the narrator continues, rats “hate the light,” and moreover, they’re “terrified of people, and slink and cower all the time.” During this time, the rat you’re looking at, Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), is conducting himself in quite the opposite fashion: he wakes, stretches, and walks directly into warm sunlight, amiably greets a sailor on the ship where he lives, and stands upright, not at all slinky.
Thus the narrator is revealed to be unreliable. This device is hardly unusual, not even in a children’s story. This, along with other meta-business, are frequently used — rather reliably, in fact — to engage readers and viewers, to invite them to feel “in” on the joke at hand, to understand what’s at stake in fantasy and wild imaginings. The Tale of Desperaux, like other clever tales before it, offers skepticism and tonal finagling to challenge expectations and, as in the well-known cases of Fractured Fairy Tales, Shrek, and Enchanted, in order to make parents as well as children feel included. The stories so told function on multiple levels, both broadly romantic and smartly sarcastic.
And yet, in this case, the challenge doesn’t hold up. Where Shrek, for example, raises questions about cynicism and commodity culture in order to sell cynicism and commodities, Tale almost immediately abandons its unreliable narration in order to press the case for earnest belief in romantic conventions. If Roscuro begins his story within Despereaux’s story as a fairly charming rat — fond of his sailor, the open sea, and soup (more on this in a minute) — he is also left by the wayside (that is, in a place called “Ratworld”), in order that the film might refocus its attentions on a more typical hero, the adorable, round-bodied, big-eared mouse for whom the tale is named.
This shift in focus and tone is never exactly motivated (then again, logic is probably not so necessary in a kids’ story). Following this cunning précis, which leads Roscuro to the kingdom of Dor, where both royal and regular humans revere soup as much as he does nd rats and mice speak English — the narrator is no longer unreliable and is instead describing just what you see before you, as well as what’s in the mouse’s big generous heart. To get here from there, the film has to dump Roscuro quite literally down a deep dark hole (this after some unfortunate interactions with the humans of Dor). Here he discovers Ratworld, overseen by the fingers-fluttering, Nosferatu-like Botticelli (Ciarán Hinds), populated by tattered and garbage-eating creatures much like himself, and accompanied by a soundtrack that reeks of stereotypically snake-charming, “Middle Eastern” music.
Aside from the questions raised by this characterization of rats” as “Middle Eastern,” the film makes another abrupt shift by leaving Roscuro in this pit and switching location to the much pleasanter “Mouseworld.” Here the narrator follows the young life of Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), his huge ears and adventurous spirit reminiscent of Dumbo. Like his precursor, Despereaux is taunted by his peers and scolded by his elders because he’s “different.” In the mouse’s case, he is not cowardly and afraid, as mice are trained from birth to be (he draws pictures of kittens and likes to go exploring). Armed with a preternatural fearlessness, he is determined to be himself. That self, it so happens, is derived from a fairy tale, specifically, a book he finds in Dor, where he has been sent by his father (William H. Macy), to learn to be afraid. Instead of eating the book’s pages, as he has been instructed, Despereaux reads them, and in them discovers a model of excellent fearless behavior: a tall blond gentleman on a big studly horse who sets out to rescue a princess.
Once he has imbibed this romance, Despereaux finds correlates for it in his own experience, in particular when he meets a pale, thin princess named Pea (Emma Watson), in desperate and depressing need of saving. She is, it turns out, the victim of something that went wrong in Roscuro’s story (again, having to do with soup), and has been locked away in her palace bedroom since this accident. As much as she longs for freedom and soup, she is denied, for her father has essentially outlawed happiness in Dor.
Despereaux is initially thrilled to take up Pea’s cause (and she accepts him as a talking mouse because he also demonstrates, in his tiny way, that he is a gentleman who means to serve her). But for a movie that begins with what seems a healthy disregard for tradition, this fall-back onto that most tedious of romance conventions — the girl who gazes out the window at a gray sky and cries, waiting to be saved — is disappointing. This even as the film simultaneously counters this convention with another, the servant girl with aspirations of her own.
Here again, the story takes a turn, for the servant girl, Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), is slightly ogreish (she sports a pig nose worthy of her surname, in addition to stringy brown hair and freckles, a sign of her peasantish exposure to the elements) and her aspirations are immediately deemed out of bounds. A short bit of flashbacking reveals that she came to her employment at the palace through being sold by her father, though she has transformed this nasty event, in her mind, into her one and only chance to escape the pig farm where she was born and labored for years in mud and slop. At the palace, Miggory scrubs floors and delivers food to the prisoners who live in the underground dungeon, yet she persists in believing that just being near the royals might somehow rub off on her, that she, like the lucky, lucky Pea, is also a princess in her way.
Like Despereaux, Miggery yearns to be accepted in all her difference, but like Pea, she’s stuck in a pre-defined part. Miggery’s solution to her class-based fix is vaguely psychotic: she becomes so obsessed with her mistress that she might be counted as a stalker, recalling Silence of the Lambs‘ Buffalo Bill when she performs her dream self in front of a mirror. The film can’t abide this behavior, and so it arranges for Miggory to learn a lesson, while reaffirming the inherent privilege and beauty of Pea. That Miggory must come to accept “her place” — which is not that of a princess in the most conventional sense — is not surprising.
It’s not surprising that a movie called The Tale of Despereaux is more intent on granting Despereaux his wish than granting the same to a servant girl. That he — a mouse — is more accurate in his fantastic self-assessment than Miggory appears to be a matter of fate and gender, if not species. It’s too bad for her, but surely encouraging for the mice in the audience.