Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
January 2009

Thinking small

'Despereaux' big on talent, but comes up short in the story department

The Tale of Despereaux
Universal Pictures
Director: Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen
Screenplay: Gary Ross, based on the book by Kate DiCamillo
Starring: The voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Kevin Kline, Ciaran Hinds, Robbie Coltrane, Tracey Ullman and Stanley Tucci
Rated G / 1 hour, 30 minutes
(out of four)

There are no fewer than five crucial storylines in The Tale of Despereaux. There are 14 characters of some importance, plus the narrator. Voicing these 15 roles are 15 enormously accomplished actors, who between them have 12 Oscar nominations, 37 Golden Globe nominations, 31 Emmy noms and 15 Tony nods. (And I'm not even counting Christopher Lloyd's tiny, thankless role.)

For all this, there is about 90 minutes of material on the screen.

What do all of these numbers mean? Perhaps nothing. Or maybe they mean that the studio spent a lot more time snagging big-name talent that would look impressive on a movie poster than it did on developing character and story.

Honestly, what was the point of bringing on someone like Lloyd, if you were only going to give him one very brief scene where his voice talents are hardly put to work? What is the point of procuring more than a dozen talented character actors when so many of them are used so sparingly, as all these connecting stories flit by toward their conclusion?

The point, ultimately, is that The Tale of Despereaux is yet another disappointing effort from a non-Pixar animation studio. No effort was spared on talent, but no time was wasted on such mere details as character detail, story nuance . . . or story, for that matter.

The film bounces around between five subplots - including one that is spontaneously introduced halfway through the film at a point when it's already struggling to keep up with the other four - but doesn't seem to have the time to explore many of them in any great detail. The most time, naturally, is spent on the central plot of Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a small, big-eared mouse brimming with courage and curiosity despite his community's best efforts to teach him how to cower and be afraid like all the other mice. Because of his inability to be like the other mice, he is banished to the rat underworld, where he meets up with Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), an unorthodox rat who only by bad luck wound up down there in the "dungeon."

Quite accidentally, he had a part in the death of the queen of Dor. Her loss forced the King into a deep depression, as he canceled the kingdom's annual "Soup Day" - its biggest celebration - as darkness washed over the entire kingdom. The exile of soup throughout the kingdom is the tragic and abrupt end of the line for the great Chef Andre (Kevin Kline), who has been wowing the townspeople with masterpieces of soup for years now.

The King's daughter, Princess Pea (Emma Watson), is trapped by the kingdom's grief and doomed to remain in her room at the top of the castle . . . and it is her story that inspires Despereaux to come find her and save the day.

Wait, I'm not finished yet. There's also the poor servant girl, Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), who figures prominently into the plot in the third act but whose backstory is thrown into the mix haphazardly and without care.

For all its different elements and characters, The Tale of Despereaux is a distressingly simple story with simple solutions. But the story is just the story; the problem is the filmmakers never take enough time to explore within the nooks and crannies of these stories. It's too concerned with its own construction.

The only major exception is the recurring character of Boldo (Stanley Tucci), who is described as a "magical soup genie" and whose "body" is made up of various fruits and vegetables. His occasional appearances wake the film up from the long drone of its screenplay mechanics, but they are far too occasional to save it.

Boldo is also one of Despereaux's most impressive visual achievements - an area in which the film is inconsistent. Certain compositions and settings are exquisitely rendered, but I'm not particularly fond of the look of the human characters.

The scenes with humans cast a disorienting illusion, almost like a film being projected with the wrong lens. The stye - which looks like a stretched, elongated version of the humans in Shrek - doesn't work. The characters' lips don't always seem to move properly, either.

The Tale of Despereaux is perfectly passable as a light fable of courage, love and forgiveness. It's just unfortunate that it can't claim to be anything beyond that.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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