What can you say about an animated mouse movie? There’s a brave little mouse who sticks to his principles. Everyone learns a valuable lesson. It’s pretty much what you’d expect.
The best thing you can say about The Tale of Despereaux is that it hasn’t gone through the Disneyfication machine. There’s no wisecracking sidekick and there are few easy answers. On the whole, this is a melancholy movie, dealing with themes of grief, betrayal, and impossible longing.
Based on the Newbery Medal-winning children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, Despereaux follows several characters who receive almost as much narrative weight as the title character. There’s the King, who is mournful and sad. There’s Roscuro the rat (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) who longs for forgiveness and freedom. There’s Princess Pea, who is also Hermione Granger. And there’s the serving-girl, Miggery Sow (voiced by Tracey Ullman), who is trapped within her own limitations, a plight that comes startlingly close to a class-struggle message.
And then there’s some sort of soup spirit, composed of levitating vegetables; a left-field reference to Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
On the technical side this mouse movie is a mixed-bag. The CGI animators went all-out on the texture mapping. Every hair on every rodent is rendered in meticulous digital HD resolution. The humans are detailed down to the smallest freckle and twitching facial muscle.
When spread over cartoonishly proportioned faces, the hyper-realistic textures are pretty damn freakish. It recalls to mind the image of a realistically rendered Homer Simpson.
None of this makes the characters emotionally accessible, which is only aggravated by a wonky sound design and the distractingly all-star cast. It’s hard to concentrate on a character’s inner-life when you’re trying to figure out if they’re voiced by William H. Macy or Frank Langella.
In so far as this is a Newbery Medal story with deep and important lessons The Tale of Despereaux is pretty good.
In so far as it’s a CGI spectacular featuring the voice of Matthew Broderick, it’s not so hot.