The G-rated animated family film The Tale of Despereaux has just been released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Universal Studios. My co-reviewer at Preview OnLine had critiqued the film for its theatrical run, but when a publicist asked me to interview the producer of the comic adventure, I was sent a pre-release DVD copy. So I sat down with a mix of age ranges, nephews and nieces (ages 3 through 10), their great-grandmother (aged 86) and me, the uncle (aged, well, still young at heart). Upon the ending titles, the consensus of the group was that Despereaux, the little mouse with the big heart, not to mention Dumbo-like ears, was one cool dude.
This “once upon a time” fairy tale has all the ingredients children love: a beautiful princess, adventure, danger, and villains overcome by the heroic deeds of a tiny mouse with big ears and even bigger heart. Besides being ridiculed about his ears, Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), refuses to cower and insists on reading books instead of chewing on them. This upsets his teacher, parents and all of the citizens of “Mouseworld” deep inside a castle in the land of Dorr. When he admits to befriending the sad and lonely Princess Pea (Emily Watson), the knight errant mouse is sent to the dungeon to live in Ratworld, where he befriends Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a rat who, unlike most rats, loves the light and wants to escape the darkness.
I was delighted that the filmmakers had managed to heighten a typical mouse-and-his-princess tale with symbolism and allegorical storytelling, rather than merely relying on CGI wizardry to hold adolescent attention. What’s more, I could see components inspired by classic painters given to the film’s color and texture. Indeed, The Tale of Despereaux is animation at its best, where form follows function and lighting becomes a theme-driven character of its own.
“In a lot of scenes, the light becomes the star of the sequence,” states head of lighting Ryan Michero in the press notes. “For example, when Roscuro is in his nook, he has a little shaft of light—almost like his pet—that he shows to Despereaux.”
VFX supervisor Barry Armour adds, “The movie has some of the same type of light as a Vermeer painting. It has that ‘north window light,’ very soft shadows, but directional and not hard. It was a nice opportunity to do something a bit out of the ordinary for an animated feature.”
In real life, finding a mouse in the house is unnerving for most of us, yet mice and rats are often central figures in movies aimed at kids. I was able to ask producer Allison Thomas (who exec-produced the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit in 2003), why kids connect with rodent characters? “I think children feel so small in this world of giant adults and powerless that they relate to small creatures. Even for a mouse, Despereaux is tiny. But he is able to overcome great odds. And it’s exciting for children to see him stand up to other mice and rats, as well.”
Rats signifying bullies, right?
And why the huge ears on little Despereaux?
“That’s why his senses are so heightened,” said Ms. Thomas. “He can hear more than the other mice. That’s part of his talent. What may seem an oddity to some can actually be a strength for the possessor. And because his senses are so heightened he has a higher appreciation for things.”
“To be yourself. Have the courage of your convictions and be who you are. But the other thing is that there are no bad kids, just kids who sometimes do bad things. There are a number of rats portrayed as bullies in the story. They’ve done bad things. But that doesn’t mean they have become a bad rat (or kid). I think bullies have often been hurt in some way and are acting out their hurt. And if you can figure out how to forgive them, then they will most likely become great kids again.”
So there you have it, an action-filled cartoon aimed at kids, but with lessons for the entire family concerning redemption, forgiveness and strength of character.
The Tale of Despereaux is now available, both on DVD and Blu-ray, and contains several bonus features, including a humorous behind-the-scenes featurette and special offers designed to entertain and stimulate the minds of little ones.
Though The Tale of Despereaux has no foul language, sexual references or strong violence, it does contain a bit of darkness. Despereaux endures scary moments as a prisoner among hundreds of hungry rats, a terrifying cat tossing him about and many other dangerous events. The king wallows in his grief over his dead queen who dropped dead after spotting a rat in her soup. And the princess is later kidnapped by her maid and the rats who drag her into the dungeon. But without these grim situations, there would be no need for Despereaux, who embodies strong messages of truth, courage, hope and light.
Phil Boatwright and Mary Draughon both review films from a Christian perspective. Read Mary's review of The Tale of Despereaux HERE.