About an hour into The Tale of Despereaux (pronounced Dess-per-Row) I was already brainstorming headlines for this review. “Despereaux-te to Leave” was one I came up with. “The Tale of Desper-No” was another one. I originally considered “Desper-eaux-no” before settling on “The Fail of Despereaux,” which I decided was wittier, funnier, and more thought provoking than anything contained within the movie itself.
Warning: this review deliberately contains spoilers in an attempt to keep you from paying money to see it.
The Tale of Despereaux tells not one tale but (at least) three intersecting ones. The film begins by introducing us to Roscuro the Rat (Dustin Hoffman) as he arrives in the Kingdom of Dor (which coincidentally rhymes with “bore”). Dor revolves around soup, and one day each year Andre (the king’s chef) prepares an irresistible soup for everyone in the entire kingdom. Roscuro is so drawn to the soup’s wonderful aroma that he heads directly to the kitchen. (At this point it was hard to ignore the similarities to Pixar’s 2007 film “Ratatouille,” a film about a rat that loved soup.) While trying to get a better whiff of the soup’s mesmerizing aroma, Roscuro slips and falls into the soup. The queen, convinced she has just taken a sip of soup from a bowl containing a rat, has a heart attack and dies. As a result, the King bans both rats and soup from the kingdom. The King retreats to his room where he plays sad songs on the guitar all day, color disappears from the kingdom, and it never rains.
If this sounds weird, just wait — we’re just ramping up here. Roscuro ends up in Ratworld, a place where rats live deep below the city. Also below the city but not near Ratworld is Mouseworld, where mice live. In Mouseworld we meet Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a young mouse with big ears who refuses to conform to the rules of Mouseworld. He sets off mouse traps for fun, refuses to cower and hide, and wants to (gasp) read books instead of eat them. When Despereaux commits the cardinal sin of talking to a human, he is ultimately banished to a dark hole (which leads to Ratworld).
The story goes on and on. Eventually Roscuro the Rat and Despereaux the Mouse team up to try and save the Kingdom of Dor from its soupless funk. At some point along the way Roscuro turns bad, then good, then bad, then good again, for reasons neither my wife nor myself could ever figure out. When Mason asked if Roscuro was a good guy or a bad guy, all I could say was, “Hell if I know!”
Thrown in the middle of this whole retarded mess is a subplot involving a servant girl (Miggery Sow, played by Tracy Ullman) with a hearing problem who gets duped by Roscuro to kidnap the princess. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that the servant girl with the unique birthmark (don’t they always have one?) was given up for adoption and you can bet she’ll find her father before the end of the film. What this had to do with anything, I have no idea.
Being an animated film for children one can assume there will be a happy ending, but by the time we got to it nobody in the theater cared. I seriously did not care if anybody in the film lived or died — in fact, I was secretly hoping they would all die so that the film would end. The film’s run time of 100 minutes is deceiving and I felt like they may have left a zero off the end. Despereaux is the only film my kids have asked — no, begged — to leave. Morgan finally quit begging 2/3 the way through the film. She was lucky; she fell asleep.
Modern animated films must walk a fine line between entertaining both kids and adults, but The Tale of Despereaux failed to entertain either demographic. After the movie was over I asked Morgan (age 3 1/2) what her favorite part was. She said, “the popcorn.” Mason (age 7) claimed to enjoy the film, but when I asked him what it was about he said he had no idea. (To be fair, neither did I.) I also had to look up every single character’s name online while writing this review; names like Miggery Sow, Roscuro, and Botticelli are tough to remember and/or spell. The one thing you will remember are the film’s morals. Not only do you get beaten over the head with them, but just in case you miss one, they are repeatedly reiterated by the narrator (Sigourney Weaver).
About the only thing this film has going for it is its beautiful animation, but this is 2009 — I expect beautiful animation. Unfortunately, I also expect to be entertained, and in that respect Despereaux was a failure. Not only would I not recommend seeing this in the theater — I wouldn’t recommend renting it or even downloading it for free.