Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m a fool for an animated feature film. Cars, Wall*E, Bolt. Monsters, Inc, the Shreks, the Toy Storys. Flushed Away, Ratatouillie. Anxiously awaiting Aliens vs. Monsters. Have never quite gotten all the way over the brilliance of Hoodwinked. So, yeah, was expecting The Tale of Despereaux to be another sure thing. I mean, just look at the starpower: Sigourney Weaver, Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick, Tracy Ullman, Emma Watson. Even Kevin Kline. This is more talent than the Princess Mononoke dub, maybe.
Not to say anything negative about the animation, it’s maybe the best I’ve seen, and all those actors on voice, they’re of course doing everything perfect. Early on, though, you can tell something’s wrong — usually animated movies have their stories gone over a lot more thoroughly. In Despereaux, the catalyst — [spoilers abound] that pirate-rat falling into the soup — it doesn’t even feed into the title character’s development arc. That seems kind of unforgivable. And then, this being a children’s movie and all (yes?), there’s just a conglomeration of narrative levels (denoted by animation), flashback, and subplot that finally only serve to diffuse any narrative impetus that catalyst is supposed to have given us. Granted, there’s reconciliation, there’s redemption, there’s surprise, there’s touches of humor and the necessary action sequences, there’s cuteness, but finally, maybe halfway into it, you realize, like I did, that you’re watching a novel pasted up onto the screen, not something originally conceptualized as a movie. Which is to say Despereaux‘s making that big mistake you don’t see so much in anymore, at the very market-driven box-office: staying too loyal to the source material. Which, judging by what’s on screen, is likely very excellent. The Tale of Despereaux would seem to be an excellent novel. As a movie, though, it fails, even with Sigourney Weaver as our voiced-over Deckard, trying to keep the story on-track.
As to how to fix it, in some perfect world? I’d say we need a lot straighter line drawn between the good and the bad here. As-is, the person in the Cruella De Vil roll is the King, who’s so suffering from grief that the ‘bad thing’ he does is instantly excused away, kind of making the rest of the quest just the usual paces (nevermind that the king never ‘learns his lesson’). And the princess in her tower, she doesn’t even have a love interest, does she? I mean, unless you count Despereaux the mouse, but not only is he a mouse, but he’s a good deal younger than her too. I don’t know. We don’t ever even get the pirate-rat who started all this teaming up with Despereaux to, against every single odd, save this kingdom. And, by ‘save,’ I mean, return them to their soup. Which I think kind of goes hand-in-hand with the the bad guy not being bad enough: soup’s that vital? It’s not a dragon raining down fire in the streets, anyway. But, I guess soup or the lack therof’s in keeping with the very low-key, muted approach in Despereaux, where everything turns on human nature, on understandable responses (which plays wonderfully, say, in a Kieslowski film), on unintended consquences, rather than the loud flashy easy-to-get stuff we’re used to from our animated fare.
Is this the animated movie growing up, though, trying to inhabit, in some American way, the Miyazaki landscape? I don’t think so, no. I think it’s just a broken movie, which, judging by how uncrowded the theatre was when I saw it, the audience is kind of cued into as well.
And, as for the Neo-meets-Dumbo ending, I honestly can’t even guess. The title character trying to fly into some other movie? Kind of wished I’d just gone to the gumball shower silliness of Bedtime Stories, really.
But there’s always Aliens vs. Monsters somewhere in the future, here. A premise like that, I don’t know how it can go wrong.