THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX
The Tale of Despereaux is adapted from an award winning childrens book, published in 2003 by US childrens author Kate DiCamillo. De Camillo has also written the popular Because of Winn-Dixie (2000), which also became a film, and the Mercy Watson books about a pig. Directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen are relative newcomers with only Fell having (co)-directed a film before with Aardmans Flushed Away (2006) (which has a number of odd similarities to the plot of The Tale of Despereaux, albeit in a more comedic vein) and who went onto the stop-motion animated ParaNorman (2012). The surprise among the credits is screenwriter/co-producer Gary Ross, better known as the director of films like Pleasantville (1998), Seabiscuit (2003) and The Hunger Games (2012).
Amid a calendar that is becoming increasingly overstuffed with more and more animated films each year, The Tale of Despereaux holds its own likeably. Sam Fell and Tobert Stevenhagen create a stylised world where the characters have a soft CGI animated depth but are elongated like they had stepped out of The Triplets of Belleville (2003) or Tim Burtons Corpse Bride (2005). Although, the film that one is reminded of the most is Pixars Ratatouille (2007), another like film about rats and chefs both have French sounding words in the title and even feature a scene where humans are controlled by rats sitting on their heads.
Fell and Stevenhagen do a lovely job. The characters have a soft tenderness and it is easy to sympathise with the emotions. There are times the film has a tenderly genteel serenity Roscuros welcoming into Ratworld, the scenes with Christopher Lloyd at the Threadmaster here one kept being reminded of The Secret of N.I.M.H. (1982). The story has a strong underlying adult theme about hurt and finding forgiveness, which is a refreshingly mature one to see in a childrens film with its usually clearcut and easily identifiable villains and heroes. Not to mention the fact that Framestore have employed an extraordinary name voice cast there is almost an underlying inferiority complex to this, as though they recognised that to compete with the other animated efforts out there the only way they could get a lead was by bringing in more talent than anybody else.
In a good many ways, The Tale of Despereaux is an old-fashioned animated film. Rather than most modern animation, which is focused around easy humour, cutsie animals and flashy animated flourishes, Despereaux has a more laidback pace. It places its focus on a classic heroic arc, of an archetypal small hero trying to take on a vast world despite hugely outnumbered odds. The story has a reasonable scope to it, perhaps reflecting its literary origins, wheeling around a number of characters and interweaving their storylines. On the other hand, it also leaves some of the plots underwritten like Roscuros abrupt decision to turn villain and hatch a scheme to abduct the princess and Miggerys seeming willing compliance with this both abruptly coming from left field. There is also the bizarre figure of a being that comes to life comprised of vegetables to aid Chef Andre, about which nothing is explained at all.
The Tale of Despereaux appears much more subdued when compared to some of the big animated films released around the same time Bolt (2008), Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008). There is surprisingly little in the way of comedy in the film the odd slapstick scene with Despereaux riding around on the vegetable man, an appealing scene where Roscuro controls Miggery but she keeps getting his instructions wrong. Mostly it is a film that comes with an old-fashioned reliance on an heroic arc and a hero who upholds the virtue of chivalric manners.