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Busy ‘Despereaux’ ignores simplicity



Published: Thu, December 18, 2008 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Roger Moore

“The Tale of Despereaux” talks a good game.

It talks and talks and talks. This fairy tale cartoon, based on Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Medal-winning novel, makes for a cluttered, static film with images so vivid that the nose of the hero mouse named Despereaux glistens on screen. If only he moved a little more.

For a children’s fable, this is more interesting than entertaining, a movie that lectures rather than delights.

The title character doesn’t show up for the first 30 minutes. This “Tale” begins with Roscuro (the voice of Dustin Hoffman), a rat with a thing for soup, and not just ratatouille. He visits a kingdom known for its soup, tumbles into the queen’s bowl and gives her such a shock that she dies. Rats are banished. Soup is banished. The king drops into playing his lute and weeping, the princess (Emma Watson) is trapped in his gloom, the chefs go into a funk and a pall falls over the Kingdom of Dor.

Then this mouse is born with big ears and a different attitude toward life.

“He doesn’t scurry! He doesn’t cower!”

Despereaux (the voice of Matthew Broderick) is banished for not living his life in fear and for reading books he’s supposed to be chewing. He vows to live by a code of “truth, justice and honor.” And when he stumbles upon the princess, he starts a quest to make her world right again and safe for soup.

The best film fairy tales keep it simple, and “Despereaux” goes wrong by ignoring that. We follow the rat’s plight and Despereaux’s inert “adventure,” but also the whole kingdom-suffers-without-soup plot and the longings and misadventures of a homely milkmaid (Tracey Ullman), who longs to be a princess herself.

Sigourney Weaver narrates and imparts the book’s many life lessons about bitterness — “When your heart breaks, it can grow back crooked” — about stereotyping (“A rat is a rat. It doesn’t really matter where you came from.”) and how “a single act of forgiveness can change everything.”

All these lessons and characters and story threads and settings (”Mouseworld” and “Ratworld”) mean that there’s precious little space in Despereaux’s tale for heroism (save for the third act) and humor.

Still, children may take to this or that character or its gentle “Tell me a story” style if they can sit still long enough waiting for something — anything — interesting to happen.


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