Movie Review - The Tale of Despereaux

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Sam Fell/Robert Stevenhagen
Universal Pictures

Some movies get better and better, the more you think about them. No, The Tale of Despereaux is not one of them. And yes, it is one of those that gets worse and worse, the more you think about it.

As a movie, and aside from any objectionable points or themes, Despereaux gets a resounding “eh, so-so.” The trailer looked promising—a story about someone who is persecuted not for being afraid, but for not being afraid. Despereaux turns out to be a pretty complex story, with lots of subplots and lots of characters: evidently too many of both to fit very well into a feature length film. Most of the subplots are either never resolved or are distracting and confusing, and most of the characters boil down to cameo appearances. The computer animation is mediocre—more like a video game than like a certain animation studio we might be thinking of—and the script is littered with moralisms and clichés. The trailer may have been the best part of the movie.

Even so, we’re all tempted by the prospect of a clean movie that promotes chivalry and heroism, and it seems there aren’t many films like that to be had. We’re all (or, most all) willing to forego high-tech computer animation and even clever scripting for the sake of better things. Chivalry is better than special effects, and woe unto those who say otherwise. But Christian ethics ought to be proclaimed from the rooftops in this film before we give up our artistic standards… and chivalry and Christianity are not the same thing.

Violent and Intense Content:

Evidently, a G rating and a G rating aren’t the same thing, either. The Tale of Despereaux could easily have gotten a PG, if it had only been aimed at an older age bracket; and yet the content is, in my opinion, inappropriately intense for the audience they were after. Skeletal remains—human remains—show up in the opening credits. Not a very family-friendly start. They show up in rather alarming ways and places throughout the rest of the film, as well. The queen has a heart attack and dies in her soup, for all the audience to see. The rats have an elaborate, Romanesque society in which the highest form of entertainment is witnessing the death of mice—and humans—in the Arena. Death in the arena is never shown, but the games—chained cats attacking condemned mice, and swarms of rats mauling and devouring human victims—are stopped only in the nick of time. Kidnapping at knife-point isn’t terribly civil, either. Battles ensue.

If they had stopped with “blimey!” I might not have bothered to mention the language issues, but, manifestly, they did not. “My golly” and “my gosh” can be heard as stand-ins for the real thing a few times, and the real thing appears twice. One character is especially prone to sarcasm and back-talk, which are never condemned.

Let’s just take a look at the main character for a moment… literally. That’s all it takes to determine that he is a rodent. Human beings do not (generally) have a natural fondness for rodents, except in the movies. You like Despereaux on the screen, and you would kill him if he walked into your house. It’s amazing what animation can do. So, watch out: they’re already messing with your mind, if you’re interested in the movie in the first place.

The Tale of Despereaux takes place in a land of magic, though that doesn’t seem to matter, for most of the film (one of the major disconnects). Still, when the magic shows up, it does so in full force. Its origin, however, whether personal or impersonal, is never explained. Perhaps the mystical vegetable ghost (excuse me: “soup spirit”) made more sense in the original script, and perhaps it simply got edited down to another cameo that didn’t need to be there, but it was a weird addition, whatever its beginnings. The other magical thing is the soup. Get rid of soup, and you get rid of rain and sunshine, too.

The soup isn’t just magical, it’s evidently an obsession for this kingdom. In the kingdom of Dor, “Christmas was nothing. Well, they celebrated it, but it was nothing compared to Soup Day,” and it seems the biggest soup event of the year was held on “the first Sunday of spring, at exactly twelve noon.” Presumably this correlates to Resurrection Day, and evidently church attendance was not on anyone’s mind. Both of these remarks should have been left out simply because they didn’t fit the rest of the script. That they were left in when subplots, characters and important explanations were left out says something about their significance to the writers.

Soup may be one of the most important things for these people, and it may have power over the weather, but wait—the other most important thing is courage… and truth and honor, “but especially courage.” This triad is Despereaux’s code of honor (not, incidentally, his code of courage), discovered in a fairy story (excuse me: “legend”) he had to break the law to read—hence, perhaps, the focus on courage, not on truth. Nevertheless, despite its dubious origins, it turns Despereaux into a gentleman. “Not just a gentleman: an honorable gentleman”—kind of like a tall giant.

As the daughter and sister of gentlemen, I tend to pay attention to characters who are touted as “gentlemen”. As a student who has never seen the inside of a school, except in movies, I tend to pay attention to the way schools are represented. Despereaux is about as interested in state-directed education as I am. Even so, he says just what they taught him to. “Why do you think you’re in school?”—“To learn.”—“To learn what?”—“How to be a mouse.” As we have already observed, he is a mouse. Education is not a prerequisite to mouse-ness. He’s there, under the instruction and supervision of the state, to learn how to be the right kind of mouse. His parents have neither the spine nor the brains to teach him anything on their own.

I could, I suppose, write another paragraph on the constant philosophizing of the narrator, but I’ll save time by quoting the best of it. “You can have a good heart, and not even know it.” It’s pathetic, I know, but it’s also uncannily like a twisted paraphrase of Jeremiah 17:9—“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”* We do have the option to try to ignore it (as we do the perversions in even certain Christian movies), but there are too many people who believe it, and things like it, for us to think it couldn’t possibly have an effect on young Christians.

All in all, The Tale of Despereaux was not a bad movie, in the very worst sense of the word—not a particularly good movie, but not such a terribly bad one, either. I must admit that my unfavorable opinion of it is biased by all the really good movies I’ve seen, but, to some degree, that’s the point of the review, isn’t it? There are many films out there, and, even if it doesn’t look like it at times, there are many good films. If you’ve already seen what a truly good movie looks like, you’ll be disappointed by Despereaux, and you’ll be annoyed if not shocked by its content. I am not going to spend much time trying to argue you out of watching it (if you’re a ten year old boy or a twelve year old girl, and have adult supervision), but I won’t be seeing it again, if I have any choice in the matter.

* King James or Authorized Version. Alternative translation from the English Standard Version: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

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