Eats Like a Meal
In this Tale, many lessons thicken the broth
By Jared Peterson
The Tale of Despereaux, adapted from the thick and chunky novel by Kate DiCamillo, gives the traditional fairy tale a stir by adding ingredients fresh from the headlines.
The kingdom of Dor is a happy land that lives for soup. Each year its proud people gather in celebration as a new concoction is debuted, first gracing the royal table and soon trickling down to hungry citizens and culinary tourists from far and wide. Amidst the throngs skitters a rat of taste named Roscuro (voiced with tenderness by Dustin Hoffman), excited to sample the new stew. But as the queen takes her first sips, Roscuro, angling for an advanced whiff, loses his footing and tumbles into her bowl—and the shock of the sight kills her on the spot. An angry and inconsolable king reacts with a series of rash edicts: rats are banished, and soup itself becomes a crime—no one may eat, make, or even talk about it. In a world stung by tragedy, even the lifeblood of a nation can seem too dangerous a luxury.
This marks the beginning of a truly dark era. Down in Ratworld, in the city’s dungeon depths, banishment and privation have made the rats desperate and savage. Roscuro, mortified by his part in it all, mopes amidst the ugliness and struggles to keep his conscience. Above ground, spirits have darkened, and so has the sky. Rainless clouds block out the sun, and while the city eats salad and the king picks mournfully at a lute, his daughter Princess Pea (Harry Potter’s Emma Watson) stares out her window and longs… for light, for rain, for anything. Our hero is born in between, in the floorboards and moldings of Mouseworld. Unusually small, with saucer eyes and huge, round ears, Despereaux Tilling (Matthew Broderick) is wide open to a world that his fellow mice only know how to fear. Brave and curious, he casually explores the wonders beyond the boundaries of the powers-that-flee. Inspired by tales of chivalry, he seeks out the Princess and swears to be her victor. His actions set events in motion that will test the courage of every citizen of Dor who longs for freedom from fear.
The Tale of Despereaux is deeply-felt and intricately layered, and the filmmakers—directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen and screenwriter Gary Ross, adapting DiCamillo’s Newbury-award-winning novel—have committed to portraying human (and rodent) affairs in all their complexity. But the film lumbers a bit under the weight of its self-awareness. The pace is slow, with too many characters getting too much of our time; Despereaux, the hero, doesn’t appear at all until the second act. The action sequences are clever and rollicking, but they are punctuations in a movie made up mostly of one-on-one conversations. The narration (read by the amazing Sigourney Weaver in what I can only describe as a razor-sharp lilt) offers both lush description and intelligent assessment, but all of its “what-ifs” and “did-you-evers” leave little for the audience to discover on its own. Words are important (I’m fond of them myself), but any film that invests too much in words alone risks becoming well-lit radio. Unfortunately, Despereaux sometimes feels like the world’s prettiest audio book.
On balance, though, the film’s lessons are worth its lecturing. This fairy tale, like many, is an allegory of its time. Many members of its intended audience know 9/11 only as a blurry memory or a date on a calendar. But they are children both in and of a world shaped by those painful events, and it’s a difficult thing to try to heal those who don’t know how they’re hurt. By giving bravery a sure, small—and cute—voice, The Tale of Despereaux can really only help.
Okay, parents: When the queen dies kids may be a little slow in sensing the gravity of the moment, given that it looks like every comic face-down-in-your-soup bit since the Marx Brothers. Just a heads up: her head’s not coming back up. Also, it’s a small but unavoidable point that one character, a servant girl, is sold to someone for money, and that’s not cool. Rats and mice walk, talk and wear clothes, but they still look like rodents, so comfort levels may vary—the rats are generally creepier, though one blind mouse (sing with me now) has milky grey eyes that are a bit unsettling. A snarling, angry kitty appears in a couple of scenes—shot from a mouse’s perspective, it’s a bit scary. A couple of the action sequences have a roller-coaster energy to them, with some dangerous drops and near-misses. There’s a single “damn”, and one character uses of the word “knickers” (which is so much better a word that “underpants” that I can’t understand why we Yanks don’t use it exclusively).
At a Sunday, December 21st, screening, the following films were previewed: Coraline (PG), from the director of A Nightmare Before Christmas and featuring some scary-looking faces and the innate creepiness of all stop-motion animation (you know I’m right); Up (not yet rated), Pixar’s next delight; Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (not yet rated), with a hilarious extended trailer detailing the lengths some squirrels will go for a nut; and Monsters Vs. Aliens, which I’m pretty sure I can prove was my idea all along.
Jared Peterson is fussy about soup. Explore his hang-ups at http://proweirdo.blogspot.com.