There are in children’s literature two beloved, gallant mice who love honor and chivalry, both of whom this year have found their way onto the big screen as computer-animated characters. One is Reepicheep, who appeared in this spring’s Disney–Walden co-production The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. And the other is the eponymous hero of Kate DiCamillo’s enchanting The Tale of Despereaux.
DiCamillo is also the author of Because of Winn-Dixie, which was honorably brought to the screen by Walden Media before the Narnia films, back when Walden still made faithful adaptations of acclaimed children’s books. The Newbery-award winning The Tale of Despereaux, with its emphasis on the magic of reading and stories, is the sort of book that might have attracted Walden’s attention, though Walden would have done it as a live-action production with CGI mice and rats. Instead, it’s a computer-animated cartoon from Universal, a studio with little experience in the form other than the non-cartoony The Polar Express.
While the big-screen Reepicheep, alas, bears little resemblance to the character Lewis wrote, Despereaux fares rather better. The movie, a quirky fairy tale with echoes of The Princess Bride as well as various murine (mouse/rat-related) animated films (Ratatouille, Flushed Away, even The Secret of NIMH), is maybe two-thirds true to DiCamillo’s Newbery Award–winning story, with strange, at times surreal departures from the book. As for Despereaux himself, DiCamillo’s frail, wide-eyed romantic has become a fearless action hero.
But where the big-screen Reepicheep is merely sarcastic and cocky, the movie Despereaux is endearingly sincere. Here is a mouse-hero who is truly serious about honor, devotion and courage, in a movie that feels like a storybook rather than an action movie — a movie that, in addition to honor and devotion and courage, is also about longing, imagination, resentment, contrition, forgiveness and redemption.
It’s also a trippy movie in which the kingdom of Dor celebrates the annual Soup Day festival like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, rain magically stops falling when the queen dies and a sort of magical food golem helps the royal chef create new soups. Excuse me, did you say a magical food golem? Why yes, I did, and what’s more, he doesn’t just make soup: He gets an action scene late in the film.
What the heck? Who reads DiCamillo’s book and thinks, “What this story needs is… a magical food golem”? Perhaps it was French director Sylvain Chomet, creator of the bizarre The Triplets of Belleville, who began work on Despereaux before being kicked off the project. Or possibly Corpse Bride co-director Mike Johnson, who replaced Chomet for awhile. Certainly such a surreal conceit would be more at home in Triplets or Corpse Bride than Despereaux. At any rate, it’s harder to imagine this invention coming from writer–producer Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) or from the final directing team of Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Robert Stevenhagen (Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, The Road to El Dorado).
Too many cooks in the soup? Perhaps. Fans of the book may be frustrated by Despereaux’s unevenness and sometimes odd storytelling choices. Even so, the strange and wonderful quality of DiCamillo’s story is honored, if imperfectly.
Despereaux himself (Matthew Broderick) is different from other mice: He’s born with his eyes open, and his ears are enormous. This sets him apart from his peers, but it also means he sees and hears more than they do. More disconcertingly, he doesn’t cower and scurry like other mice — and he isn’t afraid of humans. In fact, he finds inspiration and elevation in human culture: To other mice, the books in the library are just so much edible glue and paper, but Despereaux reads the words — “Once upon a time” — and is transformed. Later, with visions of knights in shining armor and maidens fair dancing in his head, he meets a real princess (Harry Potter’s Emma Watson), and is smitten.
Though DiCamillo’s 2003 book came four years earlier, watching The Tale of Despereaux it’s impossible not to think of Pixar’s Ratatouille, which also features a computer-animated rodent with highly attuned senses and a misunderstood affinity both for human beings and their culture, in this case literature (and in the book music also) rather than cuisine — though there’s a parallel storyline involving a rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) with an affinity for fine cuisine and soup in particular.
Despereaux’s literary daydreams about knights and maidens have a stylized visual quality that parallels the bursts of color evoking Remy’s taste sensations. Despereaux even moves differently from other rats, like Ratatouille’s Remy, who preferred not to crawl on all fours — and they both have French names to boot, in a movie with long French word in the title (though Ratatouille isn’t named after a character).
The subterranean metropolises of Mouseworld and Ratworld may remind viewers of co-director Fell’s Flushed Away, with its miniature London underground. Visually, though, The Tale of Despereaux is more stylishly rendered than Flushed Away, with a beguiling look that, despite some animation stiffness, evokes picture-book illustration. Perhaps reflecting the studio’s previous experience with The Polar Express, based on the book by writer–illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (cf. Zathura), Despereaux is often reminiscent of Van Allsburg, who created similarly lavish but strangely chilly spaces much like the castle of Dor, for instance. Other times, notably in Mouseworld, I thought of the warmer styles of Maurice Sendak and Cynthia Rylant.
The picture-book feel is fitting, since whereas Ratatouille and Flushed Away are more or less urban comedies, The Tale of Despereaux is a fairy tale. What is most gratifying about the movie version is that it’s actually a fairy tale — not a Fractured Fairy Tale, not an ironic deconstruction of the genre in the mode of Shrek, Enchanted and Happily N’Ever After — but a sincere morality tale in a folk storytelling mode, with dark themes — the jealousy of the serving girl Miggery Sow (Tracey Ulmann), the vengefulness of Roscuro, the harshness of Mouseworld and the cruelty of Ratworld — to do the Grimm Brothers proud. Voiceover narration by Sigourney Weaver, often drawing directly from DiCamillo’s text, helps the effect (though Weaver’s sensible cadences aren’t necessarily the best match for the DiCamillo’s earnest, confiding literary voice).
The filmmakers subvert their source material in other ways. The book’s protagonist is precisely an unlikely hero: weak, sickly, less timid than other mice but still quite capable of fear and even prone to fainting. By contrast, the movie Despereaux is a natural hero of the Hollywood sort: one who never feels fear, and whose speed, grace and reflexes would do him credit at the Jade Palace in Kung Fu Panda. Unlike DiCamillo’s hero, who is well aware of his shortcomings, the movie mouse not only doesn’t know he’s small, he thinks of himself as a giant. Even his portentous birth in the movie contrasts with his unpromising beginnings in the book.
Roscuro’s story has been revised in a way that diminishes his inner struggle, making his treachery harder to understand and diminishing the crucial theme of light and darkness. The movie also untangles the book’s overlapping timelines, telling the story front to back in a way that undermines the sense of discovery (sort of like reading The Magician’s Nephew before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and knowing straight off where the wardrobe and lamp-post come from, who Aslan and the White Witch are, etc.).
All in all, though, The Tale of Despereaux is sprightly, charming family entertainment for the holiday season, and a fine finish to a movie year of somewhat better fare for family audiences than we’ve seen in some time.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.