The Tale of Despereaux
On Sunday the 28th, we and a friend went out to see “The Tale of Despereaux,” the animated movie adapted from the Newberry Medal winning book by Kate DiCamillo. Having seen a couple pictures of the character designs, I was a bit dubious, since, in the movie the mice and rats wear clothes like the humans do, a major departure from the book, where the rodents are more—rodentlike, and I was afraid the movie might have been “cutified” too much. (Also, I think that the drawing of the small, hairy mouse on the cover of the book is just charming as is--.)
Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. In fact, in a story such as “Despereaux,” where there are a large number of distinct characters among the rodent population, the clothes help to distinguish them and set character ( as distinguished from, for example, “Ratatouille,” where Remy, his brother, and his father are really the only individual rat characters, and they are distinguished by color.) Besides, with clothes, the artists can make some rather fun allusions, such as having the evil rat lord Botticelli wear a long high-collared coat like the outfit worn by Count Orlock in “Nosferatu” (who is often described as “rat-like”).
A Universal production and obviously well-funded, the film has the kind of star-studded cast that makes professional voice actors despair: Matthew Broderick as Despereaux, Dustin Hoffman as the hapless rat Roscuro, Emma Watson as Princess Pea, and a supporting cast including Robbie Coltrane, Tracy Ullman, William H.Macy, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline, Ciaran Hinds, Frank Langella, and Sigourney Weaver. All of them were very good in the roles but didn’t bring anything really distinctive to them, with the exception of Hoffman, who does gloom and doom better than just about anyone, and Ullman, who is well known for her characters.
The real stars of the piece are the animation and design, and the story. The production is just beautiful, with animation of the characters and expression faultless, backgrounds and settings full of fine art allusions, and nice contrasts between the 3-D animations of the main action and “flat” depictions of the characters’ dreams and imaginings.
The story plot has been considerably modified from the book, notably to make it less dark and less baroque in detail, but retains the thrust of DiCamillo’s book dealing with the emotional harm that can be done by thoughtless gestures, the value of courage even in the small, and the power of both giving and seeking forgiveness.
We all thought the result to be an excellent and very enjoyable film, and suitable for all ages—not too scary for children, but complex enough for adults as well. Recommended.