Sunday, December 14, 2008

Believe in Despereaux

Poster art for "The Tale of Despereaux."

Once upon a time, in the faraway kingdom of Dor, there was magic in the air, raucous laughter aplenty and gallons of mouth-watering soup. But a terrible accident left the king broken-hearted, the princess filled with longing and the townsfolk despondent. All hope was lost in a land where sunlight disappeared and the world became dreary gray. Until Despereaux Tilling was born... A brave and virtuous mouse, Despereaux is simply too big for his small world. Though tiny, wheezy and saddled with comically oversized ears, Despereaux refuses to live a life of weakness and fear...believing he was destined to be celebrated in the tales of chivalry he so adores. When he's banished from his home for not following the rules that society expects of a mouse, Despereaux befriends fellow outcast Roscuro, a good-hearted rat who can't bear to look in the mirror and hopes to live far from the grim underground of his kind. While Despereaux begins his noble quest to rescue Pea--a princess who can't see beyond her distorted view of the world--his pal Roscuro receives a painful rejection from her highness that sets him on a course of self-destruction. Along their parallel adventures, the two encounter colorful characters from a serving girl who wishes to be a princess to the evil leader of the sewer rats, who plots revenge on humans from his fiefdom in the subterranean shadows he relishes but Roscuro can't abide. From the highest turrets of the glittering castle to the dankest dark of Dor's sewers, friendships will be tested as Despereaux and Roscuro embark upon a journey that will change the way they look at their world--and themselves--forever. In this tale of bravery, forgiveness and redemption, one tiny creature will teach a kingdom that it takes only a little light to show that what you look like doesn't equal what you are. This is The Tale of Despereaux.

Noble mouse Despereaux in "The Tale of Despereaux."

If nothing else, The Tale of Despereaux will be an achievement in at least one regard. It demonstrates a way to do computer animation without relying solely on the shiny, plasticized versions of the world popularized early on by Pixar and now adopted completely in the Dreamworks camp. Based on an illustrated children's book, Despereaux feels hand-drawn but better, cartoony in all the right ways and lushly, perfectly stylized.
Whether the convoluted story matches the gorgeous animation is another question. A small fable told on the large stage of a fantasyland castle, Despereaux is much more than just the story of its titular mouse. Like an interspecies game of telephone, the story follows a series of misunderstandings and prejudices among many residents of the kingdom, including the narrator herself (Sigourney Weaver). The film is adapted from four different books by Newberry Award winner Kate DiCamillo, and the choppy narrative structure is probably a result of all that condensing. Still, as an all-ages holiday diversion Despereaux will be hard to beat. Dor is the kind of fantasy kingdom in which princesses talk to mice, rats have an organized community, and soup is a cause for annual celebration. Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) is a shipbound rat with a culinary nose who arrives in Dor on the day of the great soup unveiling, when the king's chef serves the entire kingdom his latest concoction. A series of mistakes later, Roscuro lands in the queen's soup bowl and scares her to death; the king goes into a deep depression, the chef is rendered obsolete, and all rats are banned from the kingdom forever. After all that exposition, we finally meet Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a tiny mouse with outsized ears and dreams to match them. His parents (Wililam H. Macy and Frances Conroy), along with the school principal (Richard Jenkins), encourage him to be timid and meek like other mice, but Desperaux dreams of chivalry and swordfights and courtly love. His dreams all come true when he meets and befriends Princess Pea (Emma Watson), left lonely by her father's depression and desperate to be rescued. But a lonely servant girl named Miggory Sow (Tracey Ullman) is so jealous of the princess that she aims to kidnap the princess and take her place, and she eventually finds an ally in Roscuro, who wants to escape exile in the rat kingdom and be welcomed by the princess the same way Despereaux is. It's way too much plot for such a brief children's movie, especially including the back stories for characters like Miggory and a castle guard and whole scenes between the chef and a man made of vegetables. They're the kind of subplots that become comfortable detours in a book, especially when told with such imagination, but in the film they take away from the story's central drive. Despereaux and Roscuro run up and down in the castle, go through exile and salvation and wind up at the center of a rat-style gladiator event, and it's enough to try and keep up with those two. It's a shame that the elegance of the animation and the storytelling don't match up, since Despereaux makes for such a nice throwback to "once upon a time" and "far, far away." I'd nearly forgotten, after Enchanted and the Shrek movies, that there's a genuine delight in settling into a story with jokes that don't derive from pop culture references, and themes that aren't a reflection on anything particularly real. So while the elegant escapism that apparently made the book such a treasure doesn't quite translate to the screen, Despereaux remains its own quiet kind of achievement, an entertaining throwback absent irony or pretension. An enchanted 3 on my "Go See" scale

No comments: