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The Tale Of Despereaux
voice cast: Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Kline, and Stanley Tucci

directors: Sam Fell, Robert Stevenhagen

93 minutes (U) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Mark West
Based on an award-winning children's book (which I haven't read), this tells of the kingdom of Dor, known to all for its wonderful soup and related Soup Day. Due to an accident, Roscuro the rat (Dustin Hoffman) causes the death of the queen, sending the country into mourning where the King outlaws soup and rats, the Sun stops shining and it doesn't rain. Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) is born a few years later, an adventurous mouse that refuses to "learn to cower" and meets the Princess Pea (Emma Watson), troubled and lonely since her mother died. Since he spoke with a human, he broke part of the mouse code and so is banished to rat-world (one floor below mouse-world), where he meets and is befriended by Roscuro. Despereaux talks about the princess, Roscuro wants to apologise, this meeting sends him to the dark side (briefly) and then it's time for a showdown at rat-world.

This film has many plus points. The animation is wonderful, making this truly a feast for the eyes and a lot of it has the apparent grace of being hand-drawn. The sets, production design and props are all lived-in and believable and this helps to elevate the production. The voice cast is exceptional too, with Kevin Kline (as Andre, the king's chef) and Stanley Tucci (as Boldo, a kind of kitchen spirit), being the absolute standouts.

Unfortunately, The Tale Of Despereaux has many points which detract. Because of the story itself, the bulk of it has a washed out feel, with a limited colour palette that makes it seem very dreary (not ideal for a film that's designed to appeal to kids). This isn't about Despereaux at all really, it's more about Roscuro and when he turns to the dark side, it makes for unpleasant viewing and, again, isn't something I'd expect from a children's animation. In fact, his shift is mirrored in the film - the first half is bouncy and pulls you in, the second half almost feels like its trying to unsettle you and it's not a change for the good. Key to this is Tracey Ullman's unpleasant character Miggery Sow, a psychopathic handmaid who seems to have wandered in from another film (not helped by flat and uninspired work from Ms Ullman) and her role as catalyst doesn't make sense, nor does the denouement of her story-arc. The story itself also falls down - it doesn't seem to be entirely clear what or who it's about and, as a consequence, feels slight and uninspired. After all, the most wonderful animation in the world won't hide the fact that the story isn't right - as Stephen King once wrote, of another film, 'it's like a beautiful car with no engine'.

As a modern fairy tale, this is supposed to be dark and occasionally scary and unpleasant, I understand that, but this just seems to push things too far. The action sequences are great and brilliantly staged and would hold the attention of even the most demanding young viewer (especially the mouse-trap run, with its Star Wars-like orchestrations), but they don't come along often enough and the unpleasant characters - specifically Botticelli (looking like Ryhs Ifans and wonderfully voiced by Ciaran Hinds) - and bland, chatty sequences hold too much screen-time.

I'm not entirely clear what age-group this is designed to appeal to. My son is four and if his attention span allowed him to sit through the bulk of it, the darker sequences would scare him. If your child was eight, the darker pieces might work better but the rest of it would probably leave them cold. A valiant effort, in terms of production and technical quality, is let down - in my opinion - by a muddled story and a confused sense of audience. I wouldn't want to suggest who this was aimed at, so it's difficult to recommend it.

One of the DVD extras is a 10-minute 'making of', notable only for showing Kline and Tucci working and acting together. Otherwise it's bland and unintentionally amusing - the producer seems convinced he's making a modern masterpiece, the two directors don't seem too aware of anything and everyone else says this is a wonderful fairytale. Notably, some of the bigger names don't appear at all. In addition, there are a couple of games.

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