Starring the voices of: Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Bottom line: Average escapism for the kids
Mice are supposed to be timid and afraid. They are supposed to cower and scurry. All mice know this, except for Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick).
Little Despereaux thinks kitchen knives are beautiful, and when danger rears its ugly head, he doesn’t scurry fearfully into the shadows. He charges in like the valiant knight he dreams of becoming. As numerous characters in the film say, Despereaux is a strange little mouse.
Despereaux’s lust for adventure takes him into the bedroom of the princess (Emma Watson), whom he befriends. When the mouse colony hears of Despereaux’s dangerous, forbidden behavior, they banish him to the rat world, where he is saved by Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman). Unlike the other rats, who voraciously hunt for food and hate both humans and mice, Roscuro is a gentleman, like Despereaux. Together, they set out to save the princess and jolt the entire kingdom out of the depression from which they are currently suffering.
“Despereaux” is a tale of three cities. There is the human city in which the princess and king live. There is Mouseworld, which lies hidden somewhere within the castle. And there is the rat world, tucked away amid the shadows of the dungeon.
The three places look very different, which is for effect. These are truly three distinct worlds. However, the animation also varies in quality among the three settings. Mouseworld is rendered as beautifully and richly as any animation you’ll find. The other two “worlds” of the film, though, are realized in noticeably inferior quality, making for an uneven movie.
Even though the stories are quite different, it’s hard not to compare “Tale of Despereaux” to that other animated movie about a rat who’d like to be human, “Ratatouille.” “Despereaux” loses that duel. In fact, it’s more of a slaughter than a duel.
To be fair, the Pixar folks who made “Ratatouille” have had two decades more practice than the makers of “Despereaux.” This is Universal’s first stab at an animated theatrical feature, so they deserve a little grace when it comes to animation technique.
But they get no such leeway when it comes to storytelling and character, since they had an outstanding series of children’s books to work with. The storytelling here does not live up to the books, and it limits the film’s audience.
Multiple characters undergo drastic changes. They begin as good, sympathetic characters. Tragedy then leads them astray and they become villains. They later rehabilitate themselves back into heroes.
This enriches the storytelling, but all these nuanced character changes are likely to go over the heads of preschoolers. On the other hand, “Despereaux” isn’t very funny and offers very little to entertain older viewers, especially parents.
The movie doesn’t inspire any kind of passionate, positive reaction. It may provoke strong emotions, though, with the way it beats us over the head with moral instruction.
“Despereaux” assumes its viewers aren’t smart enough to get the message, so it spells out everything in explicit, condescending detail. It’s reminiscent of the most pedantic, heavy-handed Disney movies. This is the kind of family movie that films like “Shrek” mock.
Despite the source material and an impressive voice cast, “Despereaux” is probably the fourth best animated feature of the year.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.