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Based on Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning children’s book, unread by me, THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX is a fairy tale lost in several different fairy tale worlds. The screenplay by Gary Ross, who has penned wonderful films such as BIG and SEABISCUIT, seems in search of a main character. The charming title character is often lost to the stories of the less compelling supporting cast. When the name of the film is THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX that’s what you expect it to be.
The film begins with a lengthy prologue covering the sad fate of Roscuro the rat (Dustin Hoffman, KUNG FU PANDA) and how he accidentally triggers the banning of the world famous soup in the land of Dor, as well as the banishing of all rats from the kingdom. After this long tale, the narrator tells us a hero doesn’t appear until the world really needs one. So Despereaux (Matthew Broderick, ELECTION) finally arrives. He’s a tiny, big-eared mouse, who doesn’t believe in cowering like the rest of his kind. This makes him an outcast. His bravery leads him to an encounter with Pea, the princess of Dor (Emma Watson, HARRY POTTER). But Despereaux’s bravery only ends in his banishment from Mouseland, sentenced to the pit where the rats will eat him.
When Despereaux descends into the dungeon, he meets more than rats. Gregory the jail keeper (Robbie Coltrane, HARRY POTTER) is impressed with the little mouse’s guts, but doesn’t want to hear about tales of princesses. Meanwhile, Botticelli (Ciaran Hinds, MUNICH), who appears to be an even more rat-like version of Nosferatu, attempts to lure Roscuro to the dark ways of the Ratworld. But Roscuro is skeptical about rejecting the world of light for the rats’ world of darkness. Oh, then Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman, THE TRACY ULLMAN SHOW), a princess-obsessed peasant girl, pops up in the story.
From the description of the book on Wikipedia, Roscuro is a straight villain in the book. This explains the film’s problems. In trying to graft a character arch onto the book’s “bad guy,” the film loses its main character. Why give Roscuro false depth when you create a straight bad guy in Botticelli? Voiced by Hoffman, Roscuro doesn’t contain any darkness at all, so any change in character seems unmotivated. The filmmakers seem to feel the same way, tacking on Weaver’s voice over explaining all the character motivations. In trying to force a message of “not judging a book by its cover” onto the film, it makes a mess of everything that should work.
What does work is the story of Despereaux. A brave mouse who falls for a princess and doesn’t want to be afraid of the world around him. Broderick’s voice isn’t perfect for the part, but one gets use to it unlike Hoffman. So often Despereaux gets lost in the “character development” of Roscuro and Mig and the out of place adventures of Boldo (Stanley Tucci, BIG NIGHT), a magical cook made of vegetables and fruit. And where is the darkness that the title implies? I mean the title character’s name means despair. There’s irony in this optimistic character that is missing from the tone of this film. Supported by instantly likeable character design, Despereaux is the underdog we naturally root for. He is supposed to be the hero that rises above his circumstance and inspires others, but that inspiration is so often forced, because too often he becomes a plot device, not a plot driver.
Is this a case of filmmakers trying to “improve” on a book and losing everything that made the book good? I can’t say that because I haven’t read the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the reaction those who have read the book will have. It’s a disappointment, because the animation is good, and Despereaux is a wonderful character. The filmmakers let him down, forcing him to cower to proper screenwriting conventions, instead of simply allowing him to tell his story his own heroic way.