A ship sails into the fairytale kingdom of Dor, bringing a friendly rat named Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) who is mesmerized by the aroma of delicious soup. For today is ‘Royal Soup Day’, an event bigger than Christmas for the citizens of Dor. They gather in fancy dress outside castle kitchen where the King and Queen and their lovely Princess Pea (Emma Watson) eagerly await what culinary concoction Chef Andre (Kevin Kline) and his muse, the soup spirit Baldo (Stanley Tucci) have come up with this time. Unfortunately, Roscuro grows so curious he accidentally falls inside a bowl of soup being served for the queen. She promptly suffers a fatal heart attack. Grief-stricken, the King bans soup forever from his kingdom and poor Roscuro is driven underground, away from the sunlight and open air he so loves to dwell in the dark sewers of Rat World.
Meanwhile in Mouse World, our hero is born: Despereaux Tilling (Matthew Broderick), a cute little fellow with enormous ears and a heart to match. For Desperaux does not know the meaning of fear. Since timidity is a virtue and bravery a four-letter word among mice, his mother (Frances Conroy) and father (William H. Macy) worry their son will be an outcast. Sure enough, Despereaux’s feats of daring include frequent visits to the world upstairs where he grows fascinated with a book on chivalry and befriends Princess Pea. Soon afterwards, princess and mouse find their lives tragically intertwined with those of Roscuro and a downtrodden servant girl named Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman).
Kate DiCamillo’s book is a delight and this is a sterling adaptation. An all-star cast, including Sigourney Weaver who supplies wry narration, respond with gusto to the strong script written by Gary Ross, writer-director of Pleasantville (1998) and Seabiscuit (2003). This was a surprisingly troubled production, with original director Sylvain Chomet (Les Triplettes de Belleville (2003)) removed from the film when he was discovered to be redirecting funds into his other project The Illusionist, and sadly overlooked for a Best Animated Film Oscar. What elevates The Tale of Despereaux above so many computer-generated cartoons is a morally complex story, uniquely told from four varying perspectives. Each of the characters are flawed and play their part in a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, where one begets another, one person is hurt and hurts someone else in turn.
Where Disney movies establish good and evil as absolutes, this daringly shows how injustice hardens the heart and drives decent characters to do bad things. Also how a single act of forgiveness can change everything. Co-directors Sam Fell - an Aardman Animation alumni and director of Flushed Away (2006) - and Robert Stevenhagen cleverly visualise DiCamillo’s concept of illumination - the bringing of light into life, through education, empathy, forgiveness. Like Don Bluth’s best movies this shows us the world from a mouse’s point of view with some inspired set-pieces including Despereaux’s gladiatorial bout with a ferocious housecat and his Indiana Jones-like sprint across a path strewn with mousetraps. The visuals balance fairytale warmth with medieval gloom, again illustrating the core theme which extends to characters renaissance-derived names. No sarcasm, no pop culture jokes, no sickly soul ballads, just solid storytelling. The music by William Ross ably captures Despereaux’s swashbuckling spirit.