Film Review: The Tale of Despereaux

Computer-animated, painterly adaptation of the Newberry Award-winning children's novel is a blunt sword of moral lessons with a character more insufferable than inspiring.

Children's-book adaptations tend to be either devotedly faithful or desperately extended. For every The Cat in the Hat (1971), the TV special that retained and trusted the original material, adding self-contained song sequences, there's at least an equal number like the 2003 big-screen version, the live-action kitty litter that vulgarized and bowdlerized the book, sacrificing it on the altar of ego amid misjudgment of modern sensibility. The Tale of Despereaux, adapted from Kate DiCamillo's (Because of Winn-Dixie) Newberry Award-winning 2003 children's novel, paints a distinctive world of contemplative somberness, in which a Disney-cute character engages in admirable heroics for a good cause. As saccharine as that sounds, it apparently worked in prose, with its interior monologues, personal explications and DiCamillo's assured voice. Onscreen, however, it plays cloyingly and derivatively, draining whatever magic the book may have held.

Part of the problem is a lack of any theme other than such broad bromides as "Follow your heart," and "Do the right thing." Brave little castle mouse Despereaux Tilling (voice of Matthew Broderick)—besotted with fairy-tale notions of chivalry and heroism, and desiring to rescue Princess Pea (Emma Watson) and the Kingdom of Dor from their doldrums—is as bland and undefined as the voiceless robot WALL-E is rich and individualistic. Born with exceptionally large ears—a major point of the book, with his subsequent keen hearing serving as his impetus to be adventurous, but given short shrift here—Despereaux can't conform to the mousy precepts taught in school. His curiosity conquers cowardice, worrying his family and his teacher, and while we're supposed to appreciate his spunk, it simply comes off as a nonconformist stubbornness for its own sake: Mice really are better off running when they see a cat, or fleeing at the sight of a knife. And if the teachers and other students aren't wrong, what does that make our hero?

The book doubtless struck a balance and explained how a well-considered judgment is generally more useful than a knee-jerk response, but that doesn't get conveyed in the film—which loses sight of the title character for several stretches and becomes instead the story of the rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a nonconformist in the harsh, underground rat-world, in that he loves the light. Rather than serve as a supporting character, he actually opens the movie and is the de facto star for a long first chunk. (This was not so in the book.) Splitting the lead that way simply waters down even more the overly general themes.

Not helping are clunky parallels with the endlessly more entrancing Ratatouille, which also features a nonconformist, soup-enamored rat franticly trying to escape a kitchen where sharp and heavy objects are being thrown and heaved at him—there's even a diminutive chef-tyrant with a French accent (Kevin Kline). And shades of Dumbo: Despereaux uses his elephantine ears to glide in the air? Really? We couldn't swipe a little less blatantly?

While armored-knight movements in particular are inexcusably awkward given the state of CGI, the look of the film, consciously emulating the Dutch masters, can be achingly lush and lovely in its outdoor scenes. And sequences of Despereaux's mind's-eye imagining a fairy tale play out in wonderfully flat, bright interludes that are like playing-card figures and stained-glass windows come to life. But there's little life or vibrancy here otherwise.