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  The Tale of Despereaux Movie Review (1 1/2 Stars)
      The Tale of Despereaux Stars Matthew Broderick


The Tale of Despereaux Movie Review

Matthew Broderick as the voice of Despereaux in the Movie The Tale of Despereaux
The Tale of Despereaux

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The chipper cynicism of the "Shrek" movies ($2.2 billion in grosses worldwide) is a popular commodity indeed because so many cultures share the same fairy tale tropes and enjoy seeing them shot at with a pea shooter.

The success of those films makes it doubly hard for a more earnest, emotional number such as "The Tale of Despereaux" to gain traction with a mass audience, particularly a mass audience of preteens for whom DreamWorks and Nickelodeon-fed sarcasm is the default approach to everything.

The film is a mixed but pretty interesting bag, though its G rating may mislead some parents into taking 4- or 5-year-olds to it, which could lead to some freakouts. I freaked out momentarily myself when the savage gladiator cat threatened to eat our hero, in a scene more appropriate to "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome."

Adapting Kate DiCamillo's Newbery Medal-winning book, the film has some visual distinction and a muted color palette, unusual in commercial computer animation.

Three worlds coexist in directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen's universe. In the human world, the kingdom of Dor, all sunlight and optimism have vanished ever since a rat, Roscuro, landed from a great height in the queen's soup, leading to her instant, fatal heart attack and the rat's banishment to the dungeon, or Ratworld. Elsewhere in the royal castle, in Mouseworld, young Despereaux resists all attempts on behalf of his elders to teach him proper mouse behavior: scurrying, cowering, fear of humans, that sort of thing.

A romantic and a gallant, Despereaux befriends the princess, but such fraternizing is verboten.

As punishment, our hero is sent to the dungeon. Much of the film takes place there, and a lot of the narrative is grim. Screenwriter Gary Ross, who wrote "Big," "Dave" and "Pleasantville," misjudges some of his story flourishes, particularly the gladiatorial battles. This underworld is about as cheery as "Metropolis."

The voice casting lightens the load.

Matthew Broderick's Despereaux, Dustin Hoffman's Roscuro and Emma Watson's princess offer plenty of feeling and no wisecracking inflections, and even Tracey Ullman -- voicing the princess' slovenly, dreamy maid, Miggery Sow -- keeps her comic instincts in check. Inspired by the black-and-white Timothy Basil Ering drawings of the book, the animation creates a world of shadowy menace and melancholy. The king, for example, is eternally at his lute, consoling himself after the death of his wife.

"The Tale of Despereaux" arrives at its "Gulliver" moment when the rats have tied up the princess and are about to go all Willard on her. They plan to eat her. To which you can only say: Too much! It's all in the finesse; "Ratatouille," another animated feature involving culinary mastery and rodents, had finesse to spare and managed to traverse all sorts of worlds effortlessly, worlds fraught with adversity but hosted by a similarly can-do hero.

Here, the effort's more visible, and the intensity's misjudged. I admired the craft more than I loved the results. But "The Tales of Despereaux" is still better-than-average animation.


The Tale of Despereaux Movie Trailer


MPAA rating: G (all ages admitted).

Running time: 1:33.

Starring the voices of: Matthew Broderick (Despereaux); Robbie Coltrane (Gregory); Emma Watson (Princess Pea); Tracey Ullman (Miggery Sow); Kevin Kline (Andre); William H. Macy (Lester); Stanley Tucci (Boldo); Ciaran Hinds (Botticelli); Tony Hale (Furlough); Frances Conroy (Antoinette); Frank Langella (Mayor); Richard Jenkins (Principal); Christopher Lloyd (Hovis); Charles Shaughnessy (Pietro); Sigourney Weaver (Narrator).

Directed by Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen; written by Gary Ross, based on the book by Kate DiCamillo; art direction supervised by Olivier Adam; animation supervised by Gabriele Zucchelli; photographed by Brad Blackbourn; edited by Mark Solomon; music by William Ross; produced by Gary Ross and Allison Thomas. A Universal Pictures release

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