Historical entertainment planned for joint celebration of three Southwest Arkansas milestone anniversaries
“The Tale of Despereaux” is one storybook tale that should probably have remained on the page. Clearly a passion project, the film is the first animated feature from the team of Allison Thomas and Gary Ross, two producers who specialize in modern fairy tales. With live action films like “Big” and “Pleasantville,” Ross has proven himself capable of evoking genial wonder on par with “Harvey.” However, here his and his partner's lack of familiarity with the form shows. Children will be squirming with boredom midway through this meandering if well-meant failure.
Perhaps foreseeing some eventual problems, the producers first enlisted Sylvain Chomet to direct the adaptation, an inspired choice considering his weirdly beautiful and inventive 2003 success, “The Triplets of Belleville.” “Despereaux” was to be Chomet's first computer-animated film, but the prickly director left quite early in the process, complaining understandably about the creative environment in Hollywood. Luckily, Ross and Thomas stuck with the Frenchman's initial character designs, so some of his unique style still made it to the screen, particularly apparent in the wonderfully pink and fleshy noses of the rodents. Unfortunately, where Chomet opts for the earthy Ross goes for the precious. Chomet's darker, more mature narrative impulses were likely washed clean from the finished script.
As it finally stands, the film itself concerns not only the brave young mouse Despereaux, a Pollyanna intent on going from meek to mighty, but also an assortment of similar misfits, each primed to learn something along the lines of forgiveness. That is, if we are to believe Sigourney Weaver, who butts in all too often as the narrator. Roscuro (short for “Chiaroscuro,” the art term for an exceptionally sharp contrast between dark and light) triples as a sailor, a rat and a gourmand — a bumbling innocent who floats into the country of Dor one day, and immediately falls on hard times.
He's doomed to the Ratworld, a thoroughly orientalized and racist representation of the lower order, where he's forced to get by on what crumbs he can find rather than the fragrant garbage enjoyed by his rat companions. He never quite fits, despite the incessant come-ons from a giant rat that looks like Nosferatu. (One never knows quite why the other rats care to integrate such a reluctant member into their society. One can only suppose there's some Meaning there to be unpacked.) Similarly, in Mouseworld, Despereaux furiously departs from stereotypical mouse behavior, brave when he should cower, stomping ahead when he should be scurrying away. This is all rather cute for a while, and then the plot twists and turns and after a long while it's all over.
But this is an animated film! Plot needn't compel us! We can make do with other stimulants! Unfortunately, all the trimmings fall short of standard. The voice acting is uniformly uninspired, especially with a lackluster Dustin Hoffman as Roscuro keeping time. Despite showy and vertiginous camera movement, the staging of the animated anthropomorphs feels rather static. With the exception of a stunning “storybook” section of beautiful flatness and rich color, the animation is turgid and sloppy, with mismatched reaction shots, botched perspective, and all manner of spatial screw-ups. Passion project or no, Ross and Thomas have compromised themselves into a very disappointing little film. Why change Kate Dicamillo's original story to such an extent? Why not go with a more dazzling and original visual style? Why does everything have to look the same? The studio would likely chalk it all up to market-based decision-making, blaming the children whom they aim to entice and entertain, but surely children are a harder sell than that.