The Tale of Despereaux
Don’t tell anyone how boring the film is until AFTER opening weekend.

Theatrical Release Date: 12/19/2008
Directors: Sam Fell & Robert Stevenhagen
Featuring the voices of: Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, Ciarán Hinds, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Jenkins, Sigourney Weaver (narrator)

I went into this film with high expectations. Originally, The “Tale of Despereaux” is a children’s book by Kate DiCamillo. In the book, she tackles heavy subjects like self-confidence and true bravery using fairy tale themes and a cast of archetypal characters; the fair princess, the plucky but unlikely knight, and the evil mastermind that plots their downfall. It isn’t all original, but it is a sweet, elegant book in its own way.

As you can imagine, I got even more excited when I saw the stellar cast. In addition to the actors above, you have supporting roles voiced by William H. Macy, Frances Conroy, Frank Langella, Christopher Lloyd, and Stanley Tucci, just to name a few. As an animated feature, they didn’t have to worry about the special effects issues that some recent theater fare has suffered from – you can do anything you want with a cartoon.

Hello, Christmastime release, great source material and cast, silver platter. It should have been great!

But it wasn’t. Sigh.

In case you are unfamiliar with the book (and even if you have read it, there are differences), here is a quick overview. In the fictional Kingdom of Dor, a visiting rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) sets into motion a dramatic chain of events when he falls into the Queen’s soup. The resulting catastrophe causes the King to ban soup, and a pall falls over the land. Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a young mouse, falls in love with Pea (Emma Watson), the young princess that pines for her lost mother, her grief-stricken father, and her once vibrant kingdom. After being banished from his home for fraternizing with humans, Despereaux tries to save Pea from the plot of the evil rat Botticelli, and save the whole kingdom in the process.

Early on, I realized that they were going to deviate from the source material. Like, a lot. Like, so much that the story isn’t quite the same anymore. So much that the core morals of the book would be lost in the formulaic, reworked plot, geared more towards action than storytelling. So I decided to view it as a stand alone piece, and try not to dwell on the changes.

It’s still not good!

A huge issue I have is with the voices themselves. It is a great collection of actors, and they do a fine job, but they are woefully miscast. First of all, for a movie set in Britain, they should all have British accents. They try to get around some of that by making a few key characters transplants form other countries, and by leaving the location of Dor vague. It might work if there were any continuity, but when some of the main characters sound so different from everyone else, it is jarring.

The other problem with the voices is that they just don’t match the characters themselves. Broderick and Ullman are great, but they are adults, not in their early teens like the characters they portray. Watson is closer to the right age, and does sound younger, but the spunky tones that work so well for her alter ego Hermoine Granger are not right for the soft, sweet nature of the princess. The rest of the actors are okay for their roles, but they don’t have much to work with.

The other issue is the plot itself. I understand that sometimes things get changed in the translation from book to film, but in this case all of the changes are just plain bad. They changed important plot lines, dropped some pivotal scenes and characters, and added events and characters that make the story more convoluted and absurd. Perhaps the biggest issue is the pacing – how can such a short film move so slowly? Since you never get a chance to really connect with the characters and the plot is so silly at times, it just becomes boring and frustrating.

So here’s my recommendation: Go see something else. “Despereaux” will annoy you if you read the book and bore you if you didn’t. If you are an adult and want to see something amazing (but not light), go see “Slumdog Millionaire“. If you want fluff, or have children in tow, “Bolt” is a great animated film that is worth spending your hard earned money on.

Or you could just stay at home, curl up with the kids, and read them the book.

It’s just a suggestion.