Despereaux's a Drab Affair: Film Review

Directed by: S. Fell & R. Stevenhagen, Runtime: 93 minutes
Grade: D+

If you've seen the stories of the big green ogre (Shrek) and the courageous little rat that could cook (Ratatouille), then you've seen The Tale of Despereaux -- only in much more accessible forms to both its younger and adult audiences. It harps on courage and daring, cramming both of DreamWorks and Pixar's motifs into a haphazardly-assembled tale that, somehow, make a story of banned soup and banished rats a complete bore.

How was soup banned, you say? By way of a rat, a seafaring renaissance rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), that drops from the ceiling into a bowlful of the Queen's soup on Soup Day -- a day greater than Christmas or Thanksgiving in the Kingdom of Dor. After she suffers a heart attack and falls face first into the bowl, the King orders rats and soup (and bowls, apparently) to never fall into his sight again. With that, the shunned Roscuro dives into the lower levels of the kingdom into the rat-inhabited sewers. The King and Princess alike mourn the death of their mother, which casts a rainless, sunless cloud over Dor that seems as if it'll never disappear.

Fear not. Shortly after, a tiny mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) is brought into the world, growing up into a fearless little guy with giant ears that leaps into mousetraps to grab cheese for fun and reads pages of fantasy books instead of gnawing at the paper. He ensnares the very essence of chivalry and courage, both of which will come in handy as he dives into the RatWorld's catacombs underneath the city in a rush to rid the castle of its plight. Can he do it? Can he bring soup, sunshine and peace between rats and humans back to reality?

The Tale of Despereaux, loosely based on the popular children's story by Kate DiCamillo, never wiggles passed being a stiff and boring attempt at child pacifier CG-cinema, even considering its promising fantasy-minded ideas and built-in momentum from the source material. Most of it leans on the film's incapability to sell the book's youthfully-minded concepts, ones that could've been given charm if the tone wasn't so drab and lifeless. It doesn't matter if we're swimming alongside rat-sized boats underneath the city of Dor or skipping up the rail along a flight of stairs towards the Princess' bedroom -- the vibrant attitude that this "little engine that could" story needs just isn't there. It makes the numerous holes in Despereaux's theatrics a little hard to swallow, stuff we'd likely not logically worry with if more energy flowed behind their execution.

Part of the problem lies in miscast voice acting, especially in Despereaux. Matthew Broderick's monotone scruffiness simply isn't the right pitch for the dashing young mouse, giving very little life to the fiery, pint-sized hero. His magnetic mannerisms are appealing enough textually, but the charm carried over in the voice/design marriage from the likes of An American Tale or Ratatouille doesn't do so here once the little guy opens his mouth. Without the right fit there, the rest of the content seems to topple afterwards. Even as Emily Watson gets the Princess' voice down suitably and Sigourney Weaver narrates -- and narrates, and narrates -- with fairytale-esque charisma, they sulk underneath the humdrum hero's middling charm. The Tale of Despereaux even transforms Dustin Hoffman's voice, one with mousy vocal experience, into a dreary and uninteresting projection as the outcast Roscuro.

This is a shame too, because the visuals in The Tale of Dexpereaux really are quite strikingly-composed behind the blasé vocal punch. Using a smart "weighted camera" feel, Despereaux's movement is given a natural rhythm while tumbling behind his tough little pathway. Artistic design and influence from the source material also inks through the image, resulting in strongly conceptualized renderings of Mouseworld and, in its drab demeanor, the city of Dor. It's all attractively animated within its surroundings, but the semi-gripping character models tend to harp on previous influences -- such as the eerily similar presence of Shrek and Princess Fiona in Gregory the Jailer (Robbie Coltraine) and Princess Pea's servant Miggory (Tracy Ullman), as well as seeing the mini-sized villainous cook from Ratatouille inside, well, The Cook (Kevin Kline) in our story. However, I thoroughly enjoy the storybook portions when Despereaux "relives" the Sleeping Beauty-like tale of a knight who defeats a dragon for his damsel in distress, building the influence here into homage paid instead of a lackadaisical imitation. It's a shame the rest of the film couldn't be that whimsical.

Though filled with the ideas of pseudo-cannibalism between mice and rats, death, and an chained-up cat doing the cruel biddings of the rat populace, The Tale of Despereaux squeaks by with a G rating likely because of the tiresome bouillabaisse surrounding all of its darker elements. Though Disney's Snow White and Alice and Wonderland both garnish the same ratings (after the MPAA's decision around their '70s re-issues), there's something undeniably dark about Despereaux's journey that might not sit well with younger audiences -- which arises yet another dissatisfying question mark. It's obvious by the conversational feel and the blunt narration that it's sacrificing the attention of adults to sweep up the kids, but why wouldn't it try to keep it equally child-minded in its adaptation? Who knows, but The Tale of Despereaux doesn't completely satisfy either spectrum in this misfiring of skewed elements. It's attractive and fanciful enough, yes, but its successes in bringing everything together offer little more than watching Shrek and Ratatouille looped simultaneously.


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