Friday, December 19, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux: Sizable odds

The Tale of Despereaux (2008) • View trailer for The Tale of Despereaux
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, despite some quite grim sequences
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.19.08
Buy DVD: The Tale of Despereaux • Buy Blu-Ray: The Tale of Despereaux [Blu-ray]

Directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen's adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's beloved book, The Tale of Despereaux, is a gorgeous visual experience: a sumptuous animated fable — in a wholly unique style, reminiscent of Flemish painters such as Vermeer and Brueghel — that employs an impeccably selected voice cast to deliver a clever fairy tale filled with colorful characters, and punctuated by several gently delivered morals.
The diminutive Despereaux, right, who always behaves like a perfect gentleman,
breaks all the rules of his Mouse World homeland when he dares speak to the
Princess Pea, center. Their lives subsequently take several unexpected — and
dangerous — turns, thanks to the arrival of Roscuro, a rat visiting from
another land.

It's also deliberately paced to the point of being sluggish, and — if a recent, family-laden Sacramento preview audience is any indication — a total snooze to the younger viewers who represent the film's target audience.

I'm all for respecting old-fashioned storytelling techniques, but not to the point of boring people. Scripters Gary Ross, Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi are to be commended for a smart, heartfelt screenplay that avoids the vibrant, joke-laden style that characterizes (for example) a Pixar animated film; such a "busy" approach would not have suited DiCamillo's delicate tale.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers may have gone too far in the other direction. Their handling of Despereaux comes complete with Sigourney Weaver's off-camera narration, intentionally employed to give the strong sense that we're all snuggled under the covers and listening to a beloved parent read the story aloud to us.

Not a bad approach, but the pacing is just ... well ... off.

Those not familiar with the book can be forgiven for wondering why it takes so long to even meet our hero; and even after he's introduced, he seems little more than a bit player in his own story. It's a tragic irony: Our little mouse protagonist — whose diminutive size, DiCamillo's book assures its readers, in no way diminishes his courage and fortitude — is utterly overwhelmed by nearly a dozen more interesting supporting characters.

And a lot of rats.

That's also a problem.

It wasn't an issue in 2003, when DeCamillo's book came out, but since then the animated, rat-oriented Flushed Away and Pixar's Ratatouille have reached movie screens, and one can't help comparing the rats-and-cooking focus of Despereaux with the latter.

Reaching back a bit further, I also note that the primary ratty villain of Despereaux — voiced by Ciaran Hinds — looks, sounds and acts a lot like Vincent Price's evil Ratigan in 1986's The Great Mouse Detective.

Despite what you may have heard, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. It's just ... disappointing.

The story begins, as Weaver recounts in her melodic voice, in the Middle Ages-esque Kingdom of Dor, which has become famous throughout the realm for an annual holiday dubbed "Soup Day." On this day, the royal chef, Andre (voiced by Kevin Kline), concocts a new soup recipe with the secret assistance of a mischievous "soup genie" named Boldo (Stanley Tucci).

As the smell wafts through the kingdom, its denizens stop everything and sniff the air, expressions of great joy brightening every face. As it happens, a ship has just docked, and its passengers include a good-hearted rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), who is as eager as anybody else to sample the soup.

Too eager, in fact. Roscuro impetuously sneaks into the palace and unintentionally precipitates a crisis of such magnitude that Dor's suddenly grief-stricken king outlaws Soup Day and the making of any soup, and banishes all rats from the kingdom.

At which point the sun disappears, rain refuses to fall, and the entire kingdom of Dor sinks into a gloomy, foglike doldrums. Artistically, the film's rich, painterly colors dwindle to shades dominated by grays.

Roscuro winds up far underground, in gloomy Rat World, where he's expected to behave like a true rat ... which is to say, quite unpleasantly.

Elsewhere, in the much cuter Mouse World, two nervous parents (William H. Macy and Frances Conroy) regard their newest infant: a mouse unexpectedly tiny even by mouse standards, and yet blessed (?) with enormous ears. As little Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) grows, he proves to be decidedly unmouselike in many other ways: He does not cower properly, and his boundless enthusiasm is perceived as dangerous.

He doesn't even regard himself a mouse; when asked, Despereaux always proclaims, "I ... am a gentleman!" (which prompts a few whimsical riffs on the "are you a man or a mouse" cliché).

Worst of all, he reads books rather than eating their pages.

Sent away from his own realm for failing to behave properly — an awfully harsh punishment, if you ask me — little Despereaux seems certain to wind up as rat chow, until he's rescued by Roscuro. Having raised himself on tales of stalwart knights and princesses in need of rescue, Despereaux then finds an opportunity to live his fantasy, when he journeys surfaceward to Dor, and finds the king's daughter, Princess Pea (Emma Watson), forlornly regarding the misery of what once was such a cheerful kingdom.

Roscuro, believing he now can apologize for his earlier transgression, decides to speak to the princess himself.

Elsewhere, and with a suddenness that feels like whiplash, we're introduced to Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), a slow-witted serving girl who fancies herself a princess. Poor Miggery's backstory is heartbreaking, and life's travails have hardened her simple-minded soul.

Indeed, several characters yield to their baser instincts, as events proceed; this is a dense tale of honor, betrayal, redemption and salvation. Weaver's always on hand to smooth over the rough spots, and explain why people — or rats — might succumb to evil tendencies ... but, even so, things are pretty rough going at times.

Seeing the lovely Princess Pea mere seconds from being devoured by thousands of raging, ravenous rats (for example) isn't exactly small potatoes, and such scenes question the wisdom of the film's G rating.

That aside, the matching of character to acting talent is impressive throughout. Hoffman is by far the best; he puts a wealth of emotional complexity into Roscuro, and the animators match this rat's many moods — from elation to disappointment and even grim fury — with subtle facial expressions that are precisely correct.

Broderick's Despereaux is a captivating blend of innocence and heroic ideals, and Ullman makes Miggery so real that she begins to feel like a flesh-and-blood person. (No doubt intentionally, Miggery's features and body type are animated in a manner that is less exaggerated, and more traditionally shaped, than the other human characters.)

Kline and Tucci are a stitch during their tag-team encounters in the royal kitchen, and Christopher Lloyd has a brief but quite memorable part as Hovis, an old blind mouse who tries to cheer Despereaux up on that day when he's banished from Mouse World.

While this adaptation of The Tale of Despereaux may not speak to today's small fry, I suspect the film will strike a nostalgic chord with their parents and grandparents, who grew up with a greater appreciation for the narrative form, and storytelling in general. They'll better admire the sumptuous visuals delivered by production designer Evgeni Tomov (The Triplets of Belleville), and the degree to which they reproduce the illustrated narrative DiCamillo presents in her Newbery Award-winning book.

Then, too, this intimate saga may play better as a home viewing experience ... although the gorgeous visuals won't look nearly as impressive on a small screen.

I applaud the effort here, but I fear it won't sell many tickets.

And that is a shame, because few book-to-movie adaptations are made with such faithful sincerity.

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