Review - 'Tales of Despereaux' TOO Good a Bedtime Story?

Ask yourself this - what really makes for a good bedtime story?

Traditionally, among the elements is a relatable and vulnerable hero, often a heroic rodent or small animal [capable of human speech, of course]. It doesn't hurt to be set during medieval European times. And never, ever, ever forget a fair princess, a colorful group of supporting characters, and a truly heinous villain. Now spice with touches of silliness, adventure, and derring-do and at least a little hint of magic.

Oh yes, and by magic that does not necessarily mean of the type that wielded by fairy godmothers or wicked witches. By "magic" we meant that quality in the storytelling that sparks your imagination.

In all, Universal’s The Tale of Despereaux tries its best to supply that kind of magic. Unfortunately, don’t be surprised if the film challenges you to stay awake, which perhaps somewhat ironically is not what you want out of a great bedtime story.

Directed by Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Robert Stevenhagen (animation director, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Road To El Dorado), Despereaux is set in the Kingdom of Dor, a land renown for … wait for it … its soup. In fact, each year it holds a festival honoring its royal chef’s (Kevin Kline) latest brothy concoction. Helping Chef Andre is the “spirit of soup,” Boldo (Stanley Tucci), a truly magical creature resembling a phantasm designed by Da Vinci protégé Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

Into this land enters Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a seafaring pet of a sailor with a truly noble heart but who also happens to be a rat. As the Narrator (Sigourney Weaver) explains, rats are generally dark creatures that lurk in the shadow spreading evil and disease. Somehow Roscuro didn’t get this message. Still, when he accidentally causes the Queen of Dor to have a heart attack, its King bans all rats from the kingdom and forbids the making of soup. When his daughter, Princess Pea (Emma Watson), objects to this ruling, he exiles her to her room.

Now enter a young mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick). As the Narrator explains, mice are generally gentle, timid creatures that would rather duck and cower in fear. Again, this Dumbo-eared rodent [he even glides like the fabled puny pachyderm] didn’t get the message. Furthermore, he’d rather read books than eat them. His love of literature gives him an odd notion [for a mouse] that he’s destined to be a hero, even if his only weapon is a sewing needle. His bravery and intelligence wind up getting him exiled too, where he eventually meets Roscuro.

Ropemakers were also called cordwainers because of their storytelling abilities. You don’t have a good rope unless there are at least three key strands running through it. In Tale, the third is the story of the jailer Gregory (Robbie Coltrane) and his daughter Miggery Sow (Tracy Ullman). Partially due to his job, and also the loss of his wife, Gregory gives Miggery up to another family to raise, who in turn sells her into indentured servitude. The girl’s story is even more tragic as she’s repulsively ugly. Yet she still manages to end up the servant to Pea, although she’s constantly dreaming of being in a much higher position.

Under the direction of Fell and Stevenhagen, Tales of Despereaux interweaves a fable about the dire consequences of prejudice with solid and inventive designs and action sequences, along with some incredible voice performances, particularly from Hoffman, Kline, and Tucci.

Yet for all their good intentions, this bedtime story can very easily make you yawn. Its good qualities wind up feeling like a snuggly blanket and a warm glass of milk, lulling the viewer into a sense of security and some truly pleasant dreams. And while this may be a good thing for kids when its time to put them in their jammies and hustle them to their rooms [we'll revisit this when the DVD is released], they’re going to get pretty restless stuck in their theater seats while Mom and Dad are snoring over the popcorn. The movie wakes up briefly when Despereaux and Boldo must run to the rescue of all involved, and even then these climatic thrills never deliver on the film's potential.

So ask yourself again, what does go into the making of a good bedtime story? Even though The Tale of Despereaux tries its hardest join the pantheon of the great ones, it just falls short. While it certainly won't induce nightmares, in the end it may wind up getting you into a pleasant dream state a little bit faster than intended.

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