The sort of person a child grows up to become—friendly, tolerant, misanthropic, irascible, or wholly indifferent—is the product of biology, sociology, and audiovisual stimuli. As easy as it is to pass down mantras of fear and hate from parent to child or society to community (and individual), so is the imprinting of courage and compassion through conversation, emulation, books, plays, films, and the like. “The Tale of Despereaux,” directed by Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen, and based on Kate DiCamillo’s book, aims to share such a message.
The computer animated film starts and then spends a substantial period of time with one gnarly eared rat named Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), a companion to a human aboard a ship. The vessel docks at the port of a kingdom that is preparing itself for Soup Day. One mishap begets another and before you can wonder, “where is Despereaux,” Roscuro has fallen into the soup, given the Queen (Patricia Cullen) such a fright that she dies, causing the King to ban the making of soups and the continued toleration of rats. After being pursued by guards, Roscuro finds himself in the castle’s bowels, adopted by a group of carnivorous and sinister rats.
Meanwhile, behind the walls of the kitchen, Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) finally enters the world, as fearless and un-mouse-like as his parents would never have dared dream. One day, in an effort to get the big-eared fur-ball to learn proper mouse behavior from his older brother, Despereaux happens upon a book of fairy tales. In no time at all, our tiny soon-to-be protagonist falls madly in love with the idea of chivalry. Over the course of the film, two objectives surface: the mouse wants to help Princess Pea (Emma Watson) think of a way to see the sun and rain again (both of which bid farewell upon the cancellation of Soup Day); the rat wants to apologize for inadvertently creating so much pain for the King, the Princess, and the whole kingdom.
Trailers for “Despereaux” focus heavily, if not exclusively, on the title character. Knowing virtually nothing about the film’s story other than the inclusion of a mouse that doesn’t behave as a scaredy-mouse should, I wasn’t exactly ready for an entire secondary storyline involving a rat. One might as well re-name the animated work from “The Tale of Despereaux” to “A Tale of Two Rodents: When Despereaux Met Roscuro.” Being comprised of parallel plots is all well and dandy, but Roscuro’s circumstances and the wrongs he wishes to right are more captivating (and even more heartfelt) than Despereaux’s. The mouse might be assigned the ‘Hero’s Journey’ a la Joseph Campbell in speech and mannerisms, but Roscuro gets an equal slice of that fairy tale pie.
If the “Tale of Two Rodents” angle isn’t enough for I-didn’t-see-that-in-the-previews effect, there’s also a servant girl and a dungeon’s guard that figure prominently in the narrative fabric. From the viewer’s vantage point, Despereaux and Roscuro’s adventures—along with those of the humans—sufficiently convey the lessons of how being afraid is crippling and being kind is ultimately rewarding. There’s no need for a narrator to stick the moral value to us, right? Not quite. Voiced by Sigourney Weaver, the narrator’s tone alternates between being self-aware and facetious to being stern and critical (of the sincerity behind the words she’s speaking). The idea that not all fear is instinctual, and that being different—even to the point of abnormal—is fine…on the condition that one’s differences make one successfully brave and generous would have gotten across without a voice-over. At twenty-seven years of age, I certainly could not ignore the blatant selling of “don’t hate or be afraid of people you don’t like”—I don’t think I would’ve missed the point if I were seven years-old either.