A Review of ‘The Tale of Despereaux,’ the Movie

Alison Morris -- December 15th, 2008

I attended an advance screening of The Tale of Despereaux this weekend (thanks, Candlewick!) and enjoyed being there surrounded by Despereaux afficiandos and those who knew it both first and best. Illustrator Timothy Basil Ering and his wife were seated one row in front of me, and it was a sincere joy to hear Tim’s WHOOP! of joy when the opening credits began rolling and "The Tale of Despereaux" appeared on the screen. How amazing it must be to breathe life into a writer’s characters then later watch them stand up and speak, literally.

Overall I would say I enjoyed this movie, though I wouldn’t say I "loved" it. If I was to give it a letter grade, I’d say it’s… a B minus, hovering dangerously close to a C plus. What follows are my reasons, though note that there are a few spoilers here!! If you haven’t read the book or you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, you might want to stop reading.

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

Things that worked well in this movie:

1. The animation is wonderful. Visually this film is lush. I took notes while I was watching and many of them wound up being about the textures of things I saw and admired — the heavy brocade fabrics that appear throughout the castle, the fur and whiskers of the mice, everything and anything METAL. I thought the animals looked far more realistic than the people, but not to a point that was distracting. On the whole I thought the style of animation chosen for this film was the perfect choice for this particular story.

2. The movie is surprisingly faithful to the book. Events happen in a different order and have been, in some cases, "embellished" quite a bit. And there are a few characters in the movie who didn’t exist in the book or who are portrayed quite differently. (Roscuro is a much more sympathetic and feeling character in the film, for example.) But at the heart of it, this movie really did follow the same basic story as the book, and (more importantly I think) it tries, quite admirably, to capture the real "spirit" of the book. I don’t think it was wholly successful in the latter regard, but I give it lots of points for trying.

3. It doesn’t feel especially "Hollywood." I expected a Disneyfication of Despereaux here — a cutesy, feel-good romp about a small mouse with a big heart who embarks on a very BIG adventure. But (refer to point #2 here), that’s not what this is. If anything, I would argue that a little bit more "Hollywoodization" would have been welcome in places, just to keep things moving at a faster clip and to keep the story from feeling incredibly dark, which it did at times. Still, I like that this movie isn’t a happy-go-lucky version of an emotionally complex story.

4. The cast is good. I am often distracted by celebrity voices in animated films, because I’m too good at matching voices to faces — I can too easily picture each actor standing behind a microphone reading their lines. In this case, though, the actors seemed VERY well-matched to the characters they were portraying, especially William H. Macy as Despereaux’s father and Dustin Hoffman as Roscuro. Though I was a *bit* disappointed at first that Roscuro didn’t have the rich Italian accent that he does in Graeme Malcolm’s utterly SUPERB reading of the book on audio. You can listen to a clip of the audio right here:

5. Some of the "embellishments" work beautifully. The world inhabited by the mice is a fully realized world with houses and buildings and matchstick lanterns, populated by lots and lots of mice wearing fabulous costumes reminicent of Flemish paintings. (The frilly collars and tall hats worn by the Council of Elders are one of my favorite costuming choices!) Likewise the dungeon world inhabited by the rats is a visual feast — detailed and elaborate and breathtaking when you see it for the first time, lit by flickering firelight and peopled with dingy creatures who gamble and cavort and eat, eat, eat, eat, eat. Other movie-created touches that I love: at one point a piece of jewelry worn by the princess saves the day in two critical and clever ways; and the walls of Despereaux’s house have been papered over with pages of books — words are some of the the first things he sees with his open-way-too-early-for-a-normal-mouse eyes.

And then there’s the scene in which Despereaux walks across the pages of an open book, reading its words (which are often several times the length of his body) when he is meant to be eating. The scenes of this mouse on this book are STUNNING, visually. They’re cut with deliberately choppy animations of what Despereaux is imagining as he reads the story — his mental images are of himself as a human knight rescuing a princess, slaying a dragon, carousing with his fellow knights, in a style that’s very reminiscent of Gustaf Tenggren’s illustrations for King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

6. Despereaux is adorable. And lovable. And admirable. And heroic. And everything that you want the hero of a children’s movie (and book!) to be. His first appearance in the film occurs surprisingly far into the film (see below), but the audience around me literally gasped and cooed with delight when a tiny baby mouse with ENORMOUS ears and big eyes appeared on the screen, staring up at the adult mice shake their heads in bewilderment at how odd he is.

7. The key messages of the book are not lost in the movie. They’re incorporated in some very poignant scenes and they’re voiced by the narrator who (in a voiceover) is "telling" us the story. Before Despereaux’s first on-screen appearance we are told, "If you know anything about fairy tales you know that a hero doesn’t appear until the world really needs one." The themes of being brave, being kind, and being forgiving recur throughout the story, in often subtle ways that reinforce these messages. When Despereaux meets with the Thread Master the scene is brief because Despereaux fearlessly launches himself into the darkness (bravery). Roscuro shows Despereaux his greatest treature — the chink in his ceiling through which he can get let in some light (kindness). And there’s a sequence of apologies at the end that is truly lovely (forgiveness).

Things that don’t work so well:

1. The story is too complicated for a children’s movie. There were a number of young children in the theater while I was watching and it was VERY apparent to me that their attention had lagged even before we’d come to the film’s second half. One of the things I love most about the BOOK The Tale of Despereaux is the number of characters whose stories become intertwined in the overall adventure that stars this lovable little mouse. But Kate DiCamillo has plenty of pages to get us there, unlike a movie that has less than two hours in which to accomplish as
much. In the MOVIE The Tale of Despereaux the stories that intertwine with Despereaux’s tale ultimately seemed like a distraction from the central plot line. Each time we moved away from our big-eared star I wanted him back again. And sometimes we just left him for far, far too long. Odd as this sounds, I think the movie would have worked better had most of the side tangents/characters been left out. It would have worked fine without Miggery Sow, for example, who really doesn’t play a big part here. It would have been fine with Roscuro making fewer or briefer appearances, or (better still) the chef being given less screen time.

2. It’s too scary for young kids. I watched 4 and 5 year-olds file in to see this G-rated movie and felt relatively unconcerned (see positive point #3) until we were shown a preview for Coraline! (Cue nervous whining on the part of the 4.5 year-old behind me, for which I don’t blame him.) Fantastic as Coraline looks to be, it is not for the very young or the relatively young and quite faint-hearted. I was not at all surprised to hear said 4.5 year-old state emphatically, "I don’t want to see the button eyes movie!" when the Coraline trailer was done, but thought he’d be better off once Despereaux… started. Not so.

In what seemed at first like a clever twist, the story begins with Roscuro’s arrival on board a ship that’s sailing into Dor on Soup Day, an annual event in which everyone in the kingdom rejoices to learn what incredible soup king’s chef has prepared this year. (SPOILER ALERT!!) From the chandelier over the royal table, a very lovable and soup-loving Roscuro swoons and PLOP! He lands in the Queen’s soup. She dies. The king outlaws soup and banishes rats. He and the princess both grieve. And Roscuro, who has just been chased by suits of armor, falls through a hole in the kitchen floor and plummets into darkness. At which point the 4.5 year-old behind me starts crying, which is sort of understandable, because we did just see a woman die and we don’t yet know if that friendly rat is dead or not and… That’s a lot to take in during the movie’s first 15 or 20 minutes.

The scariest thing about this movie, though, is one of the things that is the most visually elaborate . In the rats’ below-ground world there is an enormous arena where the rats all gather to watch Coliseum-like "games," which don’t exist in the book and (I think) probably shouldn’t exist in the movie. The first happens immediately after Despereaux’s arrival in the dungeon. One minute we see rats grabbing him, the next minute we see him in the middle of an arena that is overflowing with beady-eyed rats chanting "MOUSE! MOUSE! MOUSE!" until Despereaux’s competition arrives (an enormous cat hampered by a chain so that it can’t launch itself into the crowd and gorge on its captors) at which point the rats begin chanting "EAT! EAT! EAT!" (Scaaaaary.) Scarier still is when this same arena scene is repeated at the end of the movie (BIIIIIIIIIIIIIIG SPOILER ALERT!!!) when the rats wheel a prone Princess Pea into the arena, strapped to a flat cart that nearly covers the diameter of the arena floor. The rats hungrily await the sound of the gong that will announce their opportunity to… eat her.

Yep. This is NOT a good choice for your 4.5 year-old!!

More importantly, these arena scenes bring a level of violence to the story that I don’t think needs to be there. There is darkness in the book. There is evil and deep sorrow and scary stuff, and that’s all fine. Somehow the threat of violence on this level, though, feels… base or "crude" relative to the sophistication of the story’s emotional content. 

2. "Show to me my babies!" Despereaux’s mother is one of my favorite characters in the book and without a doubt my favorite voice done by Graeme Malcolm on the audio. (Listen to it! Her French accent is magnifique!) Her strong will and superb one-liners are completely missing from this movie, though, as she’s relegated to the role of "insignificant character," given no unique personality, and overshadowed by her husband. Bummer. Women and girls actually play little part in this movie at all, come to think of it. The Princess Pea is lovely and noble and nice but she also seems rather helpless. She just isn’t given enough screen time to seem three-dimensional, making it seem oddly jarring and out of character when we finally arrive at a scene in which she’s cruel to Mig, whom we’ve barely come to know at all.

3. For a story that moves at a jerky pace, the whole thing wraps up MUCH too quickly. If you’re going to incorporate all these different characters and their perspectives, that’s fine. But then you’d better do them to completion. Instead, Mig’s story (as I’ve already mentioned) seems extraneous and unnecessary, because she’s given too small a part to play and we know too little about her. Her happy ending, then, feels nice but not especially redemptive. She has a sudden change of heart in much the same way that the Princess does in multiple places and Roscuro does and… You get the idea. The only character whose actions always seem understandable and whose reactions don’t seem overly quick or jarring are Despereaux’s. I came away feeling like I just wish this story had been his from start to finish. Tell the others’ perspectives in a different film, or at least in a different way. I think all ages of the movie’s audience would have been better satisfied by a film in which we meet this little mouse and follow his unlikely adventures all the way to the climax of his dramatic story, without all the diversions along the way.

In summary…

You’ll note that I have twice as many positives as negatives listed here. That’s why the film manages to score in the "B" range rather than the "C." for me. Visually I thought this movie was fantastic. But its continuity and pacing were not up to snuff. Take your 7 year-old to see it, but (please, for the sake of those sitting near you) leave your 4.5 year-old at home!

7 thoughts on “A Review of ‘The Tale of Despereaux,’ the Movie

  1. Cheryl

    “The movie was surprisingly faithful to the book…” Really? Did you READ the book? This movie was so far removed from the wonderful, charming book that it didn’t deserve the title. I am a teacher who reads this book to my class at the beginning of every year. I was afraid that after the movie, the story would be given away. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nor could I have been more disappointed. The movie did a grave disservice to a wonderful book. I for one, wanted to walk out at several points, and only stayed hoping it would get better. And by the way? My 9-year-old son, who loved the book, had the same feeling exactly.

  2. susan

    My 11-year-old had read the book twice and she really enjoyed the movie, though she wasn’t thrilled with some of the changes. My 6-year-old hasn’t read it or heard it, but she really liked the movie and didn’t find it at all scary. Just as a reference point, we don’t watch TV at our house, so she isn’t exposed to much onscreen scariness.

  3. Andy

    We took our 5 and 10 year old and they both wanted to leave 30 minutes into it. It was too intense for them and the preview of the movie Coraline didnt help. What sent them over the edge was the ‘pearl-eyed’ old mouse that threw Desperaux into the dark pit.

  4. Alana Abbott

    Thanks for the review! I haven’t yet read the novel (I’ve been meaning to for years) and had the chance to review the graphic novel adaptation of the film (not the book) for SLJ recently. Some of the things you mention here as negatives are things I suspect actually worked better in the graphic novel than in the film–but reading both the GN and your review of the film make me really just want to read the original novel on its own, because I feel like there’s a much richer tale there than either adaptation can offer. The novel is rapidly moving its way up my TBR pile. 🙂

  5. Kevin Lipski

    I also appreciated the fact that the overall messages of Despereaux were kept, but it’s always disappointing when a narrator has to tell the audience what the movie means. I know it’s a thankless and impossible task to adapt a good book (bad books are more suited to the screen), but maybe if they cut out the Roman games and the excessive chef, they could have focused more on the characters. There still would have been enough action and laughs for the younger viewers. (Just not enough for the producers.)

  6. Monica Edinger

    Just reread your thoughts and agree with you about the violence. Dark isn’t the same as violence, I agree completely. But I guess I would have liked them to keep even more of the darkness of the book and targeted it older. I think it is great that they kept all the storylines including Miggery’s especially. (Although she got a way happier ending than she gets in the book, as does Gregory, for sure.)

  7. Monica Edinger

    Alison, I saw it yesterday too (thanks also to Candlewick and Margaret Tice!) and have some of my thoughts up at my blog. I called the post” The Tale of Despereaux Film: Not a Review, Exactly” because I felt I was pretty vague and gave bits of my feelings; however, you had many of the same feelings I had. I too feared a Disney-ish touch especially from the trailers I’d seen and I was very happy that it wasn’t that at all. I do have to say I wish it had been darker (thus not for the very young as is true for the book too) and I rue the loss of that French mother too, very much. I am so glad to get another booklover’s perspective. I was nervous about giving mine, but felt I should for those who were interested.

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