The Tale of Despereaux

[National Review; December 22, 2008]

There is so much to like about this film; it’s visually beguiling, it has some original characters, it’s free of crudity and pop-culture references, and it’s not screamy or exhausting. Why, then, did I find my interest evaporating within an hour of leaving the theater? I have a hunch—but let’s deal with the basics first.

Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) is a young mouse, smaller than his buddies, and sporting a pair of immense ears. “He heard more, saw more, and even smelled more,” says narrator Sigourney Weaver, than the other residents of Mouseworld (an appealing old-world town, where a mouse-sized Vermeer would feel right at home). Despereaux shows no natural gifts at scurrying or cowering, talents considered essential to mouse survival; instead, he wants to explore, read books, and follow a heroic quest. His lack of timidity is very disturbing to his family, and scandal eventually spreads throughout the town. He’s a non-conformist, pint-sized trouble in a wool hat with earflaps. “When one of our citizens strays from our way of life, he becomes a threat to us all,” one of the city fathers warns young Despereaux.

Yes, this is a well-worn theme in children’s movies; Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” became a similar public scandal because of her desire to read books and move beyond village life. This is standard fare in children’s movies because it’s never too early to start training your kids that they’re going to have to be rebels if they’re want to fit into society as adults. (That is, be rebels in the acceptable way; it would be disastrous, for example, champion an “unpopular cause” that actually *was* unpopular.)

But this message works when the subject is an artist yearning for self-expression—not when he is a mouse naively sauntering into life-threatening situations. Mice scurry and cower for a good reason: that’s the whole of their defense system. So these overly-broad pokes at supposedly hidebound society don’t quite succeed, because we don’t know why being a fearless mouse would be less fatal in Mouseworld than in our own.

Meanwhile another story is developing, one that will run across Despereaux’s. Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) is a rat, and another non-conformist: he makes his home on shipboard where he can savor the salt air and sun, and talk with a sailor who is his friend. The ship docks at the city of Dor just in time for their grand festival, Soup Day, and Roscuro rides his friend’s shoulder, amazed at the sights. The scent of soup intoxicates him, and he races through the palace kitchen chased by people who are horrified to see him there (I don’t think this intends a reference to “Ratatouille,” but it can’t help coming to mind) and winds up hiding above the grand dining room where the king, queen, and princess will take their ceremonial first sip of soup. But he falls into the queen’s soup, and she is so shocked that she has a heart attack and dies.

This come so early in the movie—before Despereaux even appears—that I expect it’s not really a spoiler. In fact, it’s the opposite, providing inviting evidence that this story really does go to some unexpected places. Roscuro runs away and hides in Ratworld, a shadowy, violent, boisterous town where denizens drink and brawl, and hold, not cockfights, but cockroachfights. He’s not at home, though, and the tragedy he caused consumes him. He wishes he could go to the Queen’s daughter, the Princess, and tell her, “I’m sorry.”

This is, frankly, a more interesting story than Despereaux’s. It’s got human, or at least rodent, pathos. And there are other interweaving characters wrestling with loss, injury, vengefulness, fear, and the elusive but powerfully transforming power of forgiveness. A children’s movie that kicks off with the death of a mother is already signaling a willingness to go into deep territory—deeper that the usual noisy, crude talking-animal fare. The narrator’s last line echoes the theme that life will inevitably bring pain, but for that very reason there is the possibility of courage: “I could tell you that they all lived happily ever after—but what fun is that?”

I think the flaw in this movie is that the strong story is not the one about Despereaux. It’s the one about Rosocuro, or maybe even the larger tale that weaves all the tragedies together. Against that backdrop, Despereaux is just a cute kid with big ears. His attraction to chivalry is endearing and naïve, but has none of the inner struggle of these other stories. (C. S. Lewis’ Reepicheep could be called a parallel, perhaps, but Reep was more interesting because he was an adult mouse with an overdeveloped concern for his honor—his distinctive strength bordered on being a flaw.) Though there’s a lot of plot going on that doesn’t concern him, Despereaux gets the lion’s share of screen time because he looks cute and, hey, a kid’s movie needs a kid lead character. But as you head to the parking lot you have the feeling you were distracted the whole time by something adorable but not actually relevant.

Other quibbles: unlike Despereaux, the princess (Emma Watson) is not even an appealing character. Feminists should be holding irate press conferences protesting the movie’s assumption that is it admirable for boys to vow to protect a princess’s honor, but said princesses have no responsibilities except moping and speaking insultingly to the serving girl. Also, the princess is so very elongated that it goes right past “attractive” into “weird,” while said serving girl, Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), is not just stuck with an unfortunate name, but made to look exceptionally ugly. It’s overkill, and why should caste lines determine genes for blonde hair and slim figures, anyway? (Or is it just a fact of the movie universe that, as Glinda of Oz told Dorothy, “Only bad witches are ugly”?)

There’s an odd thing about the look of these characters overall—that, though the mice and rats are rendered in wonderful detail, the humans have a sort of Gumby-and-Poky quality. When there’s lots of bright sunlight, a village square full of humans looks like it was painted by Thomas Hart Benton.Speaking of artists, this appears to be one of those movies full of visual allusions and puns, which will reward paying attention when your kids want to watch it over and over (more than, say, “Shark Tale” would). There are a couple of views of dungeon stairways that sure reminded me of one of M. C. Escher’s drawings. And there is a delightful, self-assembling cookery spirit composed of fruits and vegetables, named “Boldo” (Stanley Tucci); you’d have to be a more quick-thinking art fan than I to catch the hat tip to Guiseppe Arcimboldo.

There’s lots to like in “The Tale of Despereaux,” and even more to be grateful for when you compare it to other recent children’s fare. But it could have been just that much better, if the Despereaux character had some inner conflict, or if the Roscuro character had been allowed to carry the movie’s weight. Or maybe it is just the excellence of Dustin Hoffman’s performance that inclines me to think Roscuro is the story’s center. Thirty-nine years ago, in “Midnight Cowboy,” Dustin Hoffman portrayed a wrecked and sickly man surviving in the grimy side of town; this year, it’s a rat living in a ratty world, burdened with guilt and longing to set things right. Both of them are memorable roles—at least, the way Hoffman portrays them. From Ratso to Roscuro, he sure knows how to pick ‘em.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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