Film review – The Tale of Despereaux (2008)

The computer-animated film The Tale of Despereaux is an adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s much-loved children’s novel. Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) is a small mouse that, much to the horror of his fellow mice, is more interested in adventure and excitement than dutifully playing the part of a fearful little rodent. The film’s title is actually slightly misleading as Despereaux’s tale is only half of the story. There is also Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), a rat with a love of culture, sunlight and good food, who is forced to live underground with rats that possess a more vicious nature. Included in the mix of characters are a mournful king, a lonely princess, a bitter jailer, a whimsical maid and a chef who makes world famous soup with the secret assistance of a magical vegetable spirit.

The most impressive thing about The Tale of Despereaux is how relatively sophisticated it is in characterisation and the way it deals with some fairly important themes. Intolerance, revenge, redemption and the power of forgiveness are just some of the issues covered. What is most thrilling is how strongly The Tale of Despereaux emphasises the importance of imagination, having the courage to stand up for what you believe in and refusing to conform. In an era where there is a slightly disturbing trend towards celebrating ignorance and conformity it is wonderful to have a character like Despereaux who loves to read, is defiant and believes in courage, honour and hope.

Despereaux greatest act of rebellion is his refusal to fear anything. In Mouseworld this contradicts everything about what a mouse is supposedly meant to be. The mouse school actually teaches the little mice how to cower and whimper, suggesting that fear of the outside world really is learned behaviour. At one point Despereaux is even told, “There’s lots of wonderful things to be afraid of”, which could be the motto for media corporations such as News Limited.

Aardman animator Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and animation expert Robert Stevenhagen have done a magnificent job in juggling the multiple storylines but nevertheless, The Tale of Despereaux may be a little confusing for very young children. Also, while the film’s initial emphasis on food and the plight of Roscuro the rat may evoke comparisons with Ratatouille, The Tale of Despereaux contains an overall darker tone and a few scary moments. While the animation is nothing spectacular it does have a beautiful old-world feel and it serves the narrative nicely. Mouseworld is a wonderfully constructed world of found objects while Ratworld is suitably dark, exotic and foreboding. Almost entirely free of jokes, which is unusual for a kids film these days, The Tale of Despereaux is nevertheless a charming film that will appeal to older children and the appreciative adults who accompany them. 

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009