February 10, 2009 -- “The Tale of Despereaux,” based on the award-winning book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, is a classy animated feature that retains much of the magic of the book. It looks great with its Dutch-influenced artistic style, distinctive-looking characters and a dignified, subdued color palette. Yet it is also a dark tale of poverty, bigotry, slavery, hatred, envy, treachery, death, cowardice and totalitarianism. At the same time, it is also about bravery, forgiveness and redemption.
The film is fairly slow moving and somber, but it does have a positive message, and an incredibly cute mouse named Despereaux. It also has a strangely appealing rat named Roscuro, who loves to sail the high seas. Despereaux, Roscuro, the servant girl Miggery Sow and the princess, Pea, are the main characters of the story. Despereaux, a scrawny little mouse (even by mouse standards) has enormous courage (and huge ears). He becomes enthralled by the idea of chivalry, honor and doing battle with evil by reading books in the castle library. He becomes convinced that he must rescue Princess Pea from her lonely existence in her unhappy castle and kingdom. Because of his bravery, he becomes an outcast among mice, who value cowardice.
Roscuro falls under Despereaux's spell and he joins Despereaux's quest. He visits Princess Pea to ask for her forgiveness for a fatal accident he caused which led to the whole kingdom being engulfed in darkness. That is what a gentleman would do, according to Despereaux's creed. Instead of accepting his apology, she cruelly throws him out, causing him to seek vengeance upon her by aligning himself with the rats and against Despereaux. Despite all these setbacks, Despereaux remains true to his quest.
The film looks great and the story is interesting enough for adults. It may be a little to complicated for children. The characters of Miggery Sow and Roscuro are especially complicated because their personalities change during the film. Roscuro becomes noble and then becomes angry, aligning himself with rats who hate humans. There is a distressing scene where the rats capture the princess and intend to eat her alive. That might be a bit too intense for children. Miggery Sow also undergoes several changes during the movie. She displays a range of emotions, including some ugly scenes of jealousy and deceit. All this stuff is straightened out by the end of the story, which ends on a positive note, but in the meantime, children may find all these emotional flip-flops a bit confusing. Overall, the film is pretty dark in tone, too. This is not exactly a lighthearted fairy tale. The film benefits from the voice talents of Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick, Emma Watson, Tracy Ullman, Kevin Kline and many others. This film rates a C+.
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