There is so much to like about The Tale of Despereaux: it’s visually beguiling; it features genuinely original characters, given voice by a star-studded cast; it eschews crudity and pop-culture references; and it’s not screamy or exhausting. Why, then, did I find my interest evaporating within an hour of leaving the theater? I have a hunch — but let’s deal with the basics first.
Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) is a young mouse, smaller than his buddies, and sporting a pair of enormous ears. “He heard more, saw more, and even smelled more,” narrator Sigourney Weaver tell us, than the other residents of Mouseworld (an appealing old-world town, where a mouse-sized Vermeer would feel right at home). Despereaux shows no natural gifts at scurrying or cowering — talents essential to mouse survival. Instead, he wants to explore, read, and go on a heroic quest. His lack of timidity is disturbing to his family, and scandal eventually spreads throughout the town. He’s a non-conformist, pint-sized trouble in a wool hat with earflaps. “When one of our citizens strays from our way of life, he becomes a threat to us all,” one of the city fathers warns young Despereaux.
Yes, this is a well-worn theme in children’s movies. Belle in Beauty and the Beast became a similar public scandal because of her desire to read books and move beyond village life. This is standard fare in children’s movies because it’s never too early to start training kids that they’re going to have to be rebels if they want to fit into society as adults. (That is, be rebels in the acceptable way; it would be disastrous, for example, to champion an “unpopular cause” that actually was unpopular.)
But this message works when the subject is an artist yearning for self-expression — not when he is a mouse naively sauntering into life-threatening situations. Mice scurry and cower for a good reason: that’s the whole of their defense system. So the broad pokes at supposedly hide-bound society don’t quite succeed, because we don’t know why being a fearless mouse would be less fatal in Mouseworld than in our own.
Meanwhile, the film develops another story, one that will eventually cross paths with Despereaux’s. A rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) is another non-conformist. He makes his home on a ship, where he can savor the salt air and sun, and talk with a sailor who is his friend. The ship docks at the city of Dor just in time for their grand festival — Soup Day — and Roscuro rides his friend’s shoulder, amazed at the sights.
The scent of soup intoxicates him, and he races through the palace kitchen chased by people horrified to see him there (I don’t think a reference to Ratatouille is intended, but it is inescapable) and winds up hiding above the grand dining room where the king, queen, and princess will take their ceremonial first sip of soup. But he falls into the queen’s soup, and she is so shocked that she has a heart attack and dies. (This comes so early in the movie — before Despereaux even appears — that describing it here is not really a spoiler. In fact, it’s the opposite — providing inviting evidence that this story really does go to some unexpected places.)
Roscuro runs away and hides in Ratworld, a shadowy, violent, boisterous town where denizens drink and brawl — and hold, not cockfights, but cockroach-fights. He’s not at home, though, and the tragedy he caused consumes him. He wishes he could go to the Queen’s daughter, Princess Pea, and tell her, “I’m sorry.”
Roscuro’s story has human — or at least rodent — pathos. It interweaves other characters who are wrestling with loss, injury, vengefulness, fear, and the elusive but powerfully transforming power of forgiveness. A children’s movie that kicks off with the death of a mother is already signaling a willingness to go into deep territory — deeper that the usual noisy, crude, talking-animal fare. The narrator’s last line echoes the theme that life will inevitably bring pain, but for that very reason there is the possibility of courage: “I could tell you that they all lived happily ever after — but what fun is that?”
Ultimately, the flaw in The Tale of Despereaux is that the tale of Roscuro — or maybe the even larger tale that weaves all the tragedies together — is so much better than the title character’s. Against that vivid backdrop, Despereaux is just a cute kid with big ears. His attraction to chivalry is endearing and naïve, but lacking the inner struggles that make other characters memorable. (C. S. Lewis’s Reepicheep could be called a parallel, perhaps; but Reep was more interesting because he was an adult mouse with an overdeveloped concern for his honor — his distinctive strength bordered on being a flaw.) Still, Despereaux gets the lion’s share of screen time — even as interesting plotlines unfold that don’t concern him — because he looks cute and, hey, a kid’s movie needs a kid lead character. As you head to the parking lot, you have the feeling you were distracted the whole time by something adorable, but irrelevant.
I have other quibbles: Unlike Despereaux, the princess (voiced by the Harry Potter movies’ Emma Watson) is not even an appealing character. Feminists should be holding irate press conferences protesting the movie’s assumption that is it admirable for boys to vow to protect a princess’s honor, but princesses have no responsibilities except moping and insulting the serving girl. Also, the princess is so very elongated that it goes right past “attractive” into “weird,” while said serving girl, Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), is as ugly as her name. Why should caste lines determine genes for blonde hair and slim figures? (Or is it just a fact of the movie universe that, as Glinda of Oz tells Dorothy, “Only bad witches are ugly”?)
There’s an odd thing about the look of these characters overall: while the mice and rats are rendered in wonderful detail, the humans have a Gumby-and-Pokey quality. In bright sunlight, a village square full of humans looks as if it were painted by Thomas Hart Benton.
Speaking of artists, this appears to be one of those movies full of visual allusions and puns, which will reward paying attention when your kids want to watch it over and over. Certain views of dungeon stairways reminded me of one of M. C. Escher drawings. And there is a delightful, self-assembling cookery spirit composed of fruits and vegetables, named “Boldo” (Stanley Tucci); you’d have to be a more quick-thinking art fan than I to catch the hat tip to Guiseppe Arcimboldo.
There’s lots to like in The Tale of Despereaux, especially when compared with other recent children’s fare. But it could have been much better if the Despereaux character had some inner conflict, or if the Roscuro character had been allowed to carry the movie’s weight. Perhaps it is Dustin Hoffman’s superb performance that inclines me to think Roscuro is the story’s center. Thirty-nine years ago, in Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman portrayed a wrecked and sickly man surviving in the grimy side of town; this year, it’s a rat living in a ratty world, burdened with guilt and longing to set things right. Both of them are memorable roles — at least, the way Hoffman portrays them. From Ratso to Roscuro, he sure knows how to pick ’em.
– Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.