The Tale of Despereaux
Directed by Sam Fell, Rob Stevenhagen. Voices by Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Ciarán Hinds, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Hale, Frances Conroy, Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins, Christopher Lloyd, Bronson Pinchot. (2008, G, 93 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 19, 2008
The lesson learned from The Tale of Despereaux is that an overabundance of vocal talent does not a good cartoon make. Adapted for the screen by Pleasantville and Seabiscuit director Gary Ross from the 2004 Newberry Medal-winning novel by Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux adds up to much less than the sum of its parts. The animation looks decent enough, but the narrative is a choppy story that bobs among human characters in the human kingdom of Dor, where soup seems to be its inhabitants' main preoccupation, and the rodent residents of the separate municipalities of Mouseworld and Ratworld. Despereaux Tilling (voiced by Broderick) is a young mouse who is the shame of his parents and all the rest of Mouseworld. He prefers to read books rather than eat them and is more prone to acts of bravery than the natural mouse state of cowering. He is banished to the lower depths of Ratworld, where he makes the acquaintance of Roscuro, a Ratso Rizzo-type mentor (voiced, of course, by Hoffman) who caused the death of Dor's queen when he fell from a chandelier into her soup. Consequently, the king banishes soup and mice from his realm, and the residents grow sad (presumably from the lack of soup, not mice). Despereaux eventually makes friends with Princess Pea (voiced by Watson), and Roscuro attempts an apology. A servant girl (voiced by Ullman) is among the many other characters that bustle about Dor. The movie becomes so intent on introducing characters and revealing the dark chambers of the Ratworld dungeon (enough so that the "G" rating should be called into question) that it loses many of the book's messages about individuality and valor. Most crippling is the narration by Weaver, which ladles out platitudes by the heaping spoonful. Maybe it's just too difficult to make an original rodent movie in the wake of last year's superlative Ratatouille and the year before's Flushed Away (which Fell also co-directed) – especially when The Tale of Despereaux, like Ratatouille, emphasizes the relationship between rats and the culinary arts. "Is it soup yet?" we might ask of The Tale of Despereaux. The answer comes like an Amy Winehouse chorus, "No, no, no."