The Tale of Despereaux Review
With such an amazing voice cast involved, it is truly perplexing that this Universal animated production didn't receive more attention than it did upon its theatrical release on either side of the Pond. Big name stars - Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick, Frank Langella, Stanley Tucci and Sigourney Weaver - and a charming little fairytale quest for a heroic mouse set in picturesque medieval France should have had families queuing-up in droves over Christmas. But this adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's award-winning children's book was left squeaking very much to itself over the festive period. And, most distressingly of all, those people that did venture out to see it came back not only underwhelmed but openly hostile towards it. Reviews were lacklustre and dismissive - and what had been crafted as an endearing tale of determination, courage and redemption went unloved and, largely, unseen.
Surely it can't be that bad, can it?
And the answer, most pleasingly of course, is no. The Tale Of Despereaux is very far from being a classic, and it isn't told in quite the best, or most accessible fashion, but it is visually arresting, emotionally engaging, fast-paced and surprisingly dark in places. As a family film, it definitely works and as a moralistic fable it is actually much less sappy than many a Disney production.
Directed by Sam (Flushed Away) Fell and Robert Stevenhagen and written for the screen by Gary (Seabiscuit) Ross, Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb, the film tells the story of big-eared Despereaux (Broderick), a young mouse with definitely lofty ideals of heroism and chivalry. His devil-may-care attitude to life goes massively against the grain of his fellow cheese-buffs and, after foolishly getting involved with the melancholy and depressed Princess Pea (Emma Watson) in the Kingdom of Dor that towers above his miniscule domain, he finds himself banished from his world of pilfered and re-assigned human detritus by Frank Langella's Mayor and his Mouse Council, and condemned to the lower levels of the Castle, in which the volatile rats reside. Here he encounters the sadistic ruler of Ratworld, Ciaran Hinds's slimy, manipulative Botticelli, and Hoffman's pivotal Roscuro, a rodent who once sailed the seven seas and, in a fateful miscalculation to feed his belly, found himself tempted by the King and Queen's own royal soup, with the ensuing fracas in the banquet hall resulting in the Queen's untimely death and the outlawing of all rats in the city. Thus, he, too, had contrived to end up in the dangerous realm of the sewer-rats. Forging an uneasy relationship, the mouse and the rat have to overcome the evil of Botticelli, and right the accidental wrong that had been committed during Dor's prestigious Annual Soup Day and, in so doing, discover their true worth ... as gentlemen.
There is actually a fair bit more to it than this brief plot-line would have you believe. But then this Tale doesn't seem to want to take the easy path. Whether by design or by simple wrong decision, the narrative is broken up and allowed to deviate from convention, and this makes the film somewhat choppy and occasionally bereft of focus and direction. We are introduced to Roscuro first, and it is his story that sets the main Tale in motion, yet it is plainly Despereaux's adventure that provides the impetus and the ultimate resolution. Throughout the course of the unfolding drama, characters change attitudes quite drastically and the plot becomes unnecessarily complicated with betrayals, swapped allegiances and warped strategies. In an unusual step for what many may have thought would be mainly light-hearted fare, the film takes in profound melancholy, abduction and violence and any comedy that there is - and some of it is certainly amusing and slapstick - plays second fiddle to a more sombre tone.
But, for me, this slightly wayward approach and darker slant is a welcome variation on the ten-a-penny fun-fests and pop-culture referencing family product that can often clog up the release schedule.
The animation is wonderful, the palette gauzy yet sumptuous. Beautiful scenes of the town and the dungeons offer up an incandescence that makes Despereaux quite unique amongst the plethora of animated films. Colour is down-played, yet ever-present. Human faces are painfully elongated and smoothed of all texture, naturally allowing us to feel more affinity for the richly detailed rodent characters who swarm through the almost Dickensian hamlets with scratchy vigour. Crowd scenes are quite marvellously depicted and there is plenty of wild action to keep the whole thing bubbling along, from gladiatorial tussles to tail-enhanced chases of balletic finesse. A couple of these early chase scenes have the misfortune to remind us far too implicitly of Pixar's brilliant Ratatouille - Roscuro's infatuation with Chef Andre's (Kevin Kline) noble soup, what with his twitching, appreciative nose and his subsequent madcap pursuit across all manner of obstacles seems like a virtual lift of Remy's initial scampering plight in Chef Gusto's esteemed restaurant. And, in a quirky bit of drawing and characterisation, the nefarious Rat-King, Botticelli, actually looks and sounds just like Ratatouille's snobbish food critic, Anton Ego - another facet that can't help but inspire comparisons between the two films.
Despereaux, however, finds a different path to win us over, and one that is less immediately entrancing, but still engrossing and inventive.
With the twin realms of Mouseworld and Ratworld occupying different thematic and status positions in this fantasy-land, the film has the marvellous opportunity to depict both harmony and discord. The mice live in a bustling, colourful town of prim decorum and semi academia, whilst the rats, who we just know are going to have much more fun, occupy the sewers beneath the castle dungeons with an ethic of sinisterly calculated misrule. Ratworld looks like a leering, shadowy combination of Waterworld and Bartertown, they even have their own arena which is the scene for two terrifically bravura, and pivotal sequences that can catch the unwary by surprise. You see, the bloodthirsty rodents have a propensity to pitch prisoners and trespassers into this improvised arena whilst they all throng around it and watch the carnage in pure Roman style. Actually more akin to the arena sequence set on Geonosis in Attack Of The Clones, with pillars and a massive cat held on a chain, the tension and violence of Despereaux's intended execution is quite strong. With the rats pounding away like the Uruk-hai outside Helm's Deep in The Two Towers, and chanting for death, grim scratches on the stone walls from previous bouts and the monstrous feline raking and slashing in a frenzy, this is actually a surprisingly visceral treat for the grown-ups, as well.
In contrast to the dynamic quest of the Mouse and the Rat, and somewhat haphazardly thrown into this already teeming pot, is a sub-plot involving a simple dreamer of a servant-girl at the castle. Called Miggery Sow and voiced by Tracey Ullman, this hapless princess-wannabe comes equipped with something of a tragic back-story and a set of motivations all of her own. But whilst her part in the overall saga eventually comes to feel like an important engine in the main narrative, for a while at least, she seems to exist clumsily alongside the individual dramas of Despereaux and Roscuro. However, and possibly against all the odds, Ross and his fellow screenwriters do manage to sow these three disparate threads into one excitingly relevant whole. Looking like Shrek's Princess Fiona - in night-time mode, only a little less green - Miggery Sow plays into the tricksy manipulative motif that runs through a lot of Despereaux's dense script. We certainly feel for her and her predicament, yet when things turn nasty later on, there is a whiff of school-yard peer-pressure that is an uncomfortable taint in what first seemed like an allegory-light story. In fact, there is a lot going for her tale of lost youth and her yearning for the unattainable. Revelations and string-pulling schemes envelope her too, and even if her story initially feels as though it doesn't belong, it manages to resist side-lining and scorn by virtue of some quite affecting emotional development along the way.
Some elements can't so easily be brushed under the carpet, though. The script is initially confusing. Sigourney Weaver, whose voice is surely welcome, is actually the film's Achilles heel. Assuming the role of narrator, her dialogue is, by turns, patronising, sycophantic, misleading and repetitive - none of which is conducive to helping a story unfold. However, there is something about her soft, almost Beatrix Potter-informed punctuations that children find appealing. I watched this film with my two kids and, although I sort of winced whenever her voice returned, I noticed that they seemed even more attentive and enraptured than before. So, this is surely a case where the adult critic literally has no bearing other than to convey the desired affect witnessed on the target audience. Another potential problem with the film comes from a female source, as well. Emma Watson, Harry Potter's Hermione, voices the jaded, forlorn Princess Pea with a dreary monotone that perfectly matches her bland and miserable face. Just having her character on-screen is depressing enough, but hearing that voice, as well, is like a claw slowly being dragged down a window. I know that her misery is part of the plot, but this character fast becomes wearisome.
A crazy addition to the roster of characters is the walking, talking vegetable rack who acts as the inspiration for Andre's eclectic soup. Now, I'm presuming this jumble of pots and pans, carrots, cabbages and turnips, all held together by invisible joints and called Boldo (voiced by Stanley Tucci), was in the original book as well, but, even in a film that boasts talking mice and rats and a kingdom that loses both rain and sunshine after a royal soup-icide, this seems to step right out from behind that big bubble of disbelief suspension. This is an element of magic that just doesn't belong, I'm afraid.
Elsewhere, though, the cast do a fine job with a script that can occasionally clunk with indecision and/or lead-balloon style humour, but bravely soldiers on, regardless. Broderick certainly adds a youthful spontaneity to the heroic mouse, and Hoffman is brilliant as the waylaid Roscuro. Both inject real character into their performances, with Hoffman doing extremely well with his rodent's somewhat more chaotic and emotional arc. Ullman's character is dealt a poignant touch of naivete and the former singer/comedienne certainly makes the Ogre-ish maid sympathetic. Other notable voices in this extensive catalogue of talent include Bronson Pinchot as the town crier, Robbie Coltrane, William H. Macy and even Christopher Lloyd as Despereaux's father, amusingly called Hovis.
What appeals to me about this curiously off-kilter story is the darkness that permeates it. Jeopardy and wanton cruelty raise their ugly heads every so often and the themes of banishment and sadistic execution and sacrifice are definitely something that are normally airbrushed out of most family fare, especially ones in which cute animals abound. We're not talking Watership Down here, or the harrowing The Plague Dogs, but there are times when Despereaux's meandering narrative touches on the very thing that the original children's fairytales were rife with - danger and deceit and a stark mirroring of the trials of real life. But far from scaring kids - and the sight of a rat mob surging out on the attack is pretty full-on, I must say - the film stays just the right side of menacing.
Although I will admit that the first twenty or so minutes left me cold - is it just a Ratatouille rip-off and exactly where is the story going are two thoughts that danced through my mind - the film neatly settles down into a dark, escapade-filled caper that hinges on mature misunderstandings and the shady hinterland that exists between grief and guilt. It takes fairytale motifs and juggles them about in a way that would be alien to Pixar or Disney and, as can be seen by the film's lack of success, this was a bold and ill-fated approach to have taken. But to claim that the film has no charm is nothing but a shameful lie. It is certainly unfair to compare Despereaux to the likes of WALL-E, Kung-Fu Panda or even either of the two Madagascars as so many other writers have done, but it definitely shares more than a few similarities to Ratatouille that will have to be chewed a little more thoroughly before the rest of the film can be properly digested.
The Tale Of Despereaux treads on a few toes and may make a couple of storytelling errors, but this remains a rollicking adventure and an example of fine animation that should please the little ones and provide a few dark turns to satisfy the bigger ones.