Never did I think that The Tale of Despereaux would have all it takes to be a fairy tale in the spirit of Stardust, and I had actually found myself enjoying this tale from once upon a time, which provided entertainment to children, and not leave the adults in the lurch thanks to its rather mature story that spread out like a hydra thanks to the myriad of colourful characters inhabiting its kingdom of Dor, where citizens enjoy the yearly ritual of witnessing and subsequently tasting the soup of the year created.
There's a difference between a mouse and a rat, as far as likability and the cuteness factor goes. And central to the story are a world-weary rat Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) who lives aboard a ship and finds himself grounded in part due to his love for good food, and that of an innocent mouse with a big heart, the titular character Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), who is smaller in size than the average mouse, but born with big Dumbo like ears which he uses to great effect. Roscuro's presence in the kingdom happens to be the root cause of the king having to ban soup and outlaw the presence of rats in his kingdom, and disappears for a while in the middle section of the story, leaving room for Despereaux to step up to the central role.
We learn that Despereaux is no ordinary mouse, not only in physical terms, but in character, because he knows no fear and very much unlike the other mice who must learn to be meek and cower as an innate response to danger. For his steadfastness in holding true to his principles, he finds himself banished as punishment for speaking to Princess Pea (Emma Watson), and so paves way for the little one to exhibit the values of honour, chivalry, loyalty and courage, stuff in which he found appealing from a story book that he read, with which he imagines himself to be a mouseketeer/knight.
What made this movie work, are the many threads and characters in seemingly disparate narrative arcs, where you can't help but to anticipate how they would all come together. Each character created was quite balanced in having grey area to tread, so that the theme of forgiveness could ring through. And having a star studded cast to voice them worked wonders too, such as Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Ciaran Hinds (who is also in this week's Race to Witch Mountain), Frank Langella, Christopher Llyod and Sigourney Weaver as the narrator, which quite interestingly, doesn't always narrate verbatim to what's shown on screen. Each character has their own motivation put out clearly, and while some, like the key characters, have their work cut out for them, you can rely on the support cast to liven up things a little and provide some comic relief.
I guess the animation studios in the west have already reached a plateau in terms of the technical know-how in putting out a photo-realistic animated film these days. You can imagine the texture of the animal's fur, as well as the smell of the dark and stank underground city of Rat Town, or the perfumed sweetness that comes with a princess' room. It goes to show that the benchmark has been raised permanently, and it will take many years and larger budgets if local animated film studios (that have given us cringeworthy titles to date, with poor stories and poor graphics) are thinking of reaching the same heights. Not wanting to put them down, but they have to understand that a strong story is key (and doesn't mean you tweak it to suit the flavour of what you think will sell) in order for the animation to do its part (e.g. Barnyard – excellent CG art, but poor story = box office disaster).
The Tale of Despereaux again is family friendly fare save for one scene which I thought might be pushing the envelope a bit (for a children's G-rated film that is). Other than that, for those looking for a more adult fairy tale, give this mouse a chance, and in all honesty, this little guy got more spunk than Ratatouille. Recommended!