The Tale Of Despereaux

The Tale Of Despereaux


Reviewed by: Robyn Jankel

Far away in the land of Dor, a wave of misery is sweeping the country. As the king mourns the death of his wife, all merrymaking has been banned and there seems to be no release in sight for the dejected residents. But hidden away in the long-forgotten castle kitchen, a resident of the ever-bustling Mouseworld is about to prove that the unlikeliest of individuals can make a difference to the world. His name is Despereaux, and not only is he a mouse, he is a gentleman.

The Tale Of Despereaux is, first and foremost, an exquisitely striking film. The animators have drawn on inspiration from a variety of eminent artists and their influence is visible throughout the film. From a touch of Vermeer in the scenes of Dor to the dark, shady tones of Hieronymus Bosch permeating the creepy Ratworld, the visual style is a rich, glorious feast for the eyes. Just as Beauty And The Beast broke animation boundaries with the sweeping camera angles in its famous ballroom scene, Despereaux, too, rings with stylistic feats which would have been impossible to imagine in an animated film a couple of years ago.

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The human characters are deliberately non-naturalistic, with elongated or over-fattened faces and exaggerated features, but it works. Computer animation often falls flat when attempting human faces; it seems to be one thing which it is impossible for the enormously capable animators to get spot-on. Because this takes an entirely different tack and maintains a cartoonish edge, yet avoids the shiny Dreamworks signature look, the constant need for comparison to reality is instantly removed and everything else falls into place.

Based upon a book by children’s writer Kate DiCamillo, The Tale Of Despereaux is the archetypal fairy tale; a story of good versus evil, princesses and swordfights, danger and love, and the unlikely hero who saves the day. The filmmakers, thankfully, have maintained and embraced all of these features which make up the heart and soul of the film. The biggest drawback is the storyline itself, containing as it does a vast number of intricate subplots which children may find hard to keep track of. However, the introduction of the Narrator (Sigourney Weaver), whose lines are often taken from the original wording of the book itself, helps significantly in binding these stories together.

And within these multiple storylines, there is something for everyone: young girls should appreciate Princess Pea (Emma Watson), beautiful and lonely in her friendless tower, whilst boys will identify with the daring courage of our titular hero, Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), the little mouse who sets out to rescue the princess and deliver his kin from the fear they all embrace. Parents are likely to recognise the exasperation of Despereaux’s weary parents (William H Macy and Frances Conroy), repeatedly called to the principal’s office to explain their son’s behaviour. Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), meanwhile, offers another take on the Cinderella-esque princess dream, providing us with a moving dose of reality in an otherwise fantasy-driven plot.

This lovingly-crafted adaptation of a children’s book has captured all of the elements which make storybooks so appealing to children... and adults. The cast is star-studded but one would imagine that the award-winning actors were queuing up to be associated with something boasting such passion and charm. Some of the most beautiful images are formed whilst Despereaux reads (rather than eats) the books in the royal library. The horses, dragons, knights and castles are given a hand-crafted feel and truly appear to be a storybook brought to life. I found myself transported back to a time when, just like Miggery, I truly believed there was every possibility that I would grow up to be a princess.

Despereaux is a tiny, misunderstood figure with grand ideas – admittedly a somewhat overused plot point – but he stops mercifully short of being pitiful or overly cute and it is that which keeps this swashbuckling story from catapulting itself into the back catalogue of gushy, wannabe-Disney flops.

This is not a “modern fairytale” but rather, considering the book was written in 2003 and the main character is a mouse, a surprisingly traditional one. It doesn’t draw on peculiarly present-day issues and belly laughs are few and far between; it is certainly no Shrek or – more likely to draw comparisons, thanks to its fellow rodent protagonist – Ratatouille. It is amusing and touching, poignant and relevant. Shrek will go down in history but, thanks to incessant pop-culture nods, its celebrated humour is already starting to show the signs of ageing. The Tale Of Despereaux, by comparison, draws on genuine, old-fashioned joy without a hint of irony and as such deserves to be enjoyed and appreciated for many years to come.

Reviewed on: 15 Dec 2008
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A brave little mouse sets out to rescue a princess.
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Director: Sam Fell, Robert Stevenhagen

Writer: Kate DiCamillo, Gary Ross

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H Macy, Stanley Tucci, Ciarán Hinds, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Hale

Year: 2008

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK, US


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