The Tale of Despereaux (2008)


The Tale of Despereaux

released: 2008

rated: G

length: 93 min.

age: 6+

interests: mice, rats, castles, princesses, cooking, updated fairy tales, adventure

Next: read the book!

Violence: implied threat of violence, some waving of swords, nothing graphic

Intense scenes: death-by-heart-attack of Queen near beginning is fairly quick, more startling than upsetting; there is a lot of intense emotion expressed throughout – despair, grief, treachery, rejection, sorrow – but handled in a thoughtful manner

A very small mouse is ostracized by his community for being too unmouselike (ie. brave). A Queen has a heart attack at the sight of a rat in her soup, and a grieving King enacts laws forbidding both rats and soup. A Serving Girl dreams of taking the Princess’s place. A rat plots against everyone and the brave little mouse sets out to save his Princess.

The book by Kate DiCamillo is such a moving tale, so brilliantly told, that it is hard to like this film if you’ve read the book first. If you haven’t read the book, you will probably enjoy this movie.

I read and loved the book first, and found the movie extremely disappointing. So many liberties were taken, and so many changes made for no good reason. In almost every case, whenever a change was made to the original story, it was to simplify the story, lighten it up, adhere to the usual clichés… in other words make it more like every other kid movie out there.

The challenging, troubled character of Roscuro is made more and more admirable, making it necessary to beef up an entirely different (two-dimensional) villain. The absolute perfidy of Despereaux’s brother and father (in sending him away to be eaten by rats) is backpedalled. The character of Despereaux is courageous from the start, which lessens his journey – it’s no big deal when he faces the darkness and danger. And the threat to the Princess in Ratworld is confusing… is she about to be eaten?

One of the biggest themes of the book, Forgiveness, is buried under all the busy-ness. In the book there are several important and heartfelt moments of forgiveness (ie. Despereaux forgiving his father), which in the movie are either tossed off in a line of dialogue or missing entirely.

Finally the character of Arcimboldo, the spirit made up of vegetables, is certainly visually arresting but storywise he serves no purpose. As the only magical element in the whole scenario his very existence is logically baffling. I can only think that he was added to give the Chef Stanley Tucci someone to talk to. (And to create a role for Kevin Kline.)

The tragic backstory of the serving girl Miggery Sow is certainly made less violent and horrible. This is probably a good thing, I’ll give the filmmakers that, as that section in the book is terribly dark. On the other hand the character of the Princess has been flattened out and she is nowhere near as interesting (or young) as she is in the book.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there. ( is a lot more forgiving of this movie than I am.) The plot is a muddle, but if you can forgive that the animation and design are absolutely stunning. And the star-studded voice cast does some marvellous work, especially Dustin Hoffman as Roscuro.

Despite the ill-conceived story changes, this movie still presents a unique and modern fairy tale. It’s complex enough to be interesting and thought-provoking, even though the story feels loose and sloppy.

And it sparked a fantastic conversation in our house about movie adaptations, what was changed from the book and why. Excellent for developing the analytical faculty of movie critics-in-training!


Read my review of the book

Commonsense media’s review of the movie

(DVD available at


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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