For: moral confusion and foolish behavior, and warped philosophy
The Tale of Despereaux, even if it didn’t have moral problems, would have been a less-than movie. Its many subplots are random and distracting, most of the characters boil down to cameo appearances, the script is littered with (unbiblical) moralisms and cliches, and when the king outlaws soup, the world turns gray, the sun stops shining, the clouds stop raining, and the mystical vegetable ghost goes away. The fact is, however, that The Tale of Despereaux does have moral problems, which means that its artistic failures are just a bonus.
Moral Confusion and Foolish Behavior
Justice is brought up several times as one of the highest ideals, and as something that Despereaux and the other heroes love and seek. However, in spite of all the talk about justice, justice is served only once in the movie, and then only accidentally. On multiple occasions, characters who do evil, violent things do not receive justice, or even mercy. Instead, their behavior is excused and explained away as someone else’s fault, and the characters either never do apologize, or are told that they should not apologize. Kidnapping and attempted murder are referenced as “a misunderstanding… a mistake”.
A character is portrayed as a hero for deciding not to go through with his plan to murder an innocent human being, making the attempted murder part of what made him a hero.1
Despereaux boasts of and defines himself by his moral standard, including loving honor and always telling the truth. However, these standards are only used in certain contexts and toward certain people. His breaking of civil laws that he has no moral reason not to obey is called a “noble quest”. He also deliberately breaks family rules and sneaks out at night against his parent’s wishes.
Another character’s illegal activities are portrayed as justified because they result in good things.
The word “gentleman” is brought up as a major point several times, but changes meaning each time, ultimately contradicting earlier meanings and turning a positive concept into a muddy, relativistic label. Similarly, the word “honor” is given sacred status, but is never defined and changes meaning depending on who is involved and what they want to do.
The mouse government is totalitarian and oppressive, to the degree that the mice are forbidden to read, on pain of banishment (which always results in death). The government claims, “Our laws are here to protect us and our way of life. And when one of our citizens strays from that way of life, he becomes a threat to us all.” Despereaux’s father voluntarily turns him in for reading, and meekly submits to the sentence of banishment and death. This totalitarianism is, however, presented as an honest error, made by well-intentioned leaders, and submitted to by equally well-intentioned citizens. Historically and biblically, tyranny and oppression are evils, not errors, and they are indicative of wickedness on the part of the leaders (and frequently of the general population), not ignorance. The Tale of Despereaux uses this extreme, somewhat caricatured political situation to give Despereaux something to rebel against, but then softly explains it away as a minor problem easily solved.
Despereaux is in the habit of taking life-threatening risks, apparently for the thrill. This is portrayed as evidence of his courage.
The narrator is constantly philosophizing, making statements that are warped, false, nonsensical, and/or completely random.
The narrator makes two significant claims, almost in the same breath, that are both unbiblical and contradictory in intended meaning.2 She states, “When your heart breaks, it can grow back crooked. It grows back twisted and gnarled and bad,” and later says, “In fact, you can have a good heart and not even know it.” Biblically, however, if a heart ends up “twisted and gnarled and bad” after a heartbreak, it’s because it was already twisted and gnarled and bad, just less so or with a different manifestation.3 And, biblically, the thing people don’t know about their hearts is that they are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked4, not that they are good.
The narrator makes a number of statements that sound profound but are technically untrue. For example, “The story said she was a prisoner, but that wasn’t totally true, because she had hope. And whenever you have hope, you’re never really anybody’s prisoner.” Similarly, characters are positively portrayed for thinking of themselves as something other, and very different, than what they are. The combined effect is an implied message of mind over matter, where an individual’s emotions and self esteem are everything, and their physical bodies and circumstances are nothing.
Despereaux says that he is in school “to learn how to be a mouse”. He already is a mouse, however. The statement is equivalent to saying that a child goes to school to learn how to be a human being.
1 It is important to note that other characters are not portrayed as heroes for having never thought to kill their adversaries in the first place.
2 The two statements are made about the same character, at the same point in the story.
3 See Matthew 7:18, Romans 3:10-12, and Ephesians 2:1-3 for example.
4 Jeremiah 17:9 The King James Version translates the Hebrew phrase as “desperately wicked”; other versions render the phrase as “exceedingly corrupt”, “desperately sick”, etc.