Rodents have a long distinguished history on the big screen. There’s Ben, the leader of a pack of vicious killer rats who inspired the 1972 movie of the same name, Stuart Little an orphaned mouse voiced by Michael J. Fox, and written by Oscar nominee M. Night Shyamalan in one of his less sinister moods. Ratatouille starring Remy the gourmet rat, Ron Weasley’s Scabbers the rat from the Harry Potter movies, The Rescuers’s Bianca and Bernard voiced by Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart and Master Splinter the radical rat who is also the father figure to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One rodent, Mickey Mouse even won an Academy Award back in 1932. Add to that list Despereaux, a big eared mouse with even bigger aspirations in The Tale of Despereaux a new animated film starring Matthew Broderick and Dustin Hoffman.
The movie, based on the Newbery Medal winning series of children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, begins its convoluted story with Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) a charming merchant marine rat who inadvertently scares the Queen of Dor to death. After the King banishes rats from the kingdom forever he is cast out to the underworld of Ratland. Meanwhile the movie’s hero, a misfit mouse with huge ears named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) has also been expelled from his home only to end up in the dungeon of Dor castle. As he schemes to escape his underlying qualities of chivalry and loyalty emerge and his fate becomes intertwined with that of Roscuro, a bumbling servant girl (Tracey Ullman) and the castle’s princess (Emma Watson).
That’s the Reader’s Digest version of the story. It’s amazing how many plot points the filmmaker’s were able to cram into Despereaux’s 90 minute running time. The comings-and-goings of all the characters may confuse younger viewers but shouldn’t challenge 8-12 year old kids. I think, though, that most children regardless of age will be taken with the characters and the elegant animation.
Despereaux doesn’t feel like other recent animated hits like Shrek, which relies on pop culture references as a source of humor or even the brilliant WALL-E with its environmental message. Despereaux is more old fashioned than that; more like a “Once upon a time” Grimm’s fairy tale. The humor in the film comes from the characters and the situations, not belch jokes or double entendres.
Layer on top of that uniformly excellent voice work from an all-star cast which includes Matthew Broderick, Emma Watson, Dustin Hoffman, Tracey Ullman, Sigourney Weaver, William H. Macy Kevin Kline and Stanley Tucci with important messages about being yourself and redemption and you have, in a season filled with heavy weight dramas for adults like Revolutionary Road and Doubt, one of the few all-ages movies for the entire family.