The Tale of Despereaux is the story of a rat who who wants some soup created by a famous chef and a man made from vegetables. After the queen accidentally drowns, the king bans rats and soup which causes it to stop raining. This makes the princess unhappy. And when the princess in unhappy, the servants are unhappy. So one of them kidnaps the princess who is then taken to a colosseum where she is to be punished. I’ll stop there so I don’t give too much away! Confused yet? Well believe it or not those are some of the main plot lines in this film — and none of them feature the title character!

A more accurate title might have been
“The Tale of Some Randomly Connected Characters and This Mouse”

As you can no doubt already tell there are several big problems with this script. The first is its rambling story. With too many characters, too many plot lines, and no real center, little Despereaux himself sometimes seems like an afterthought. Things start off badly when we’re told that this is the story of a brave mouse and then follow a rat around for the first 10 minutes, after being warned that he is not that mouse. Things then get weird when a character made completely of food is introduced with no explanation of how. Then we finally get to meet Despereaux. The story is OK while it has a focus on Despereaux’s growing up. But soon we get back to all the other characters and it all falls apart again. And then even more characters and stories (see that first paragraph above for examples!) are introduced half way through the film. It’s just too much in too little time. A second problem with the film is the narration. In itself it’s not a bad storytelling device, but in Despereaux it is used too much as an expositional crutch. Just about every time the story gets going the narration kicks in to abruptly finish the scene and move us to the next one. The narration robs of us story that could have been better done through dialogue. The combination of these two problems leads to the the audience not caring about the characters, and no film can succeed when that happens. The third issue is the worst since even if the other problems were fixed this one would still sink it — the movie is just boring and no fun. I saw the film in a theatre full of kids and I’ve never seen an audience lose interest so fast and so fully. Even I was having to work to keep my focus.

The animation is pretty good. But it isn’t consistently good. In one scene an exterior may be gorgeous and detailed, while in the next it’s basically a blank canvas. Focussing on the good, scenes of the subterranean mouse and rat cities are meticulously designed, if a bit unoriginal due to too many mouse movies over the years. And a series of scenes where Despereaux explores a library is very well done. As he reads a book he imagines the story, and these scenes, sprinkled throughout the middle of the movie, are done with a 2D-ish stylized look that I was happy wasn’t used too often. The character animation was another hit-or-miss thing. I really liked the look of almost all the characters. But there wasn’t a lot of range in their facial expressions.

Let’s end this review with a few other good things about the film. About half way through I noticed the score (mainly because the story was starting to lose my interest). The music was pretty good but not necessarily memorable. The voice acting was above par all around. But several actors, such as Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Kevin Kline, and Ciarán Hinds, really stood out in their roles.

The Tale of Despereaux may make more sense to those familiar with the books the film is based on. But for the rest of us that sat through it, can we have out $9.00 back?

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

The Tale of Despereaux
Universal / Framestore Animation
December 19, 2008
100 minutes
Rated G
directed by Sam Fell & Robert Stevenhagen