I've seen many animated movies based on books throughout my career as an animation critic. Though most of the time, I don't usually read the book whenever watching the film. I find it often unfair to compare film adaptations to the books they were based on as both are two different forms of art and play out differently. Yet sometimes, some books just weren't made for films and "The Tale of Desperaux" is a perfect example one. This is a film I can easily describe as a mess. There's something good that was in it, but unfortunately, it got jumbled up in one of the most clumsy animated movies I have seen in a very long time. This is a film that just doesn't work.
In the kingdom of Dor, a kingdom known for their soups, a rat named Roscurro (Dustin Hoffman) accidentally ends up falling into the queen's soup which up gives her a heart attack that kills her. While he is banished into the dungeons into a rat city far below the kingdom, the king forbids anything related to soup and also makes rats illegal. It seems silly already and we're only just getting started. Also below the kingdom of Dor but above the rat city is a mouse village where a young mouse named Desperaux (Matthew Broderick) is born. However, unlike the other mice of the village who are supposed to cower and fear at everything, Desperaux is brave and courageous and feels there's more than being afraid. This naturally makes him an outlaw amongst the mouse village and his brother Furlough (Tony Hale) attempts to take him up to the palace to try to eat a book so he can be normal. However, Desperaux instead becomes transfixed with the book and ends up reading it and eventually discovering Princess Pea (Emma Watson) whom he befriends. This ends up offending the mouse kingdom and the council banishes him to the dungeon and into the rat kingdom below. I could go on about this story, but I'd rather not as it's convoluted nature is so hard to explain that we'd probably be here all day. Instead, let's get into why this film doesn't work in the end.
I decided to do some research behind the production of this film to find out what went wrong and so much cleared up to me once I figured it out. The film's original director was supposed to be Sylvain Chomet, who had directed the Oscar-nominated "Triplets of Bellville". The film was also to be made at his studio in Edinburgh. Yet he and the producers had disagreements and eventually, he left the project and left the film without a director. Eventually, the producers got Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen to direct the film and even found the visual effects studio Framestore to provide the animation and the only form of communication they had was through speakerphone and email. Right then and there, it clarified what went wrong with this film. If there's one thing I know about filmmaking, it's that collaboration is important and seeing the work upfront and personal can allow the filmmakers to add their creative touch. Without communication, the film can fall flat. That was the case for what happened with this film. The biggest problem with this film is easily the story. When Kate DiCamillo wrote the book back in 2003, it was clear it was always supposed to be a story that was read and not told. This fairy tale is a charming one when it's read as a novel, but presented as a story on the big screen, it's a straight-up mess. Gary Ross is a very talented writer having written and some times directed many films over the years including "Big", "Dave", "Pleasantville", and "Seabiscuit" all of which had fantastic and tightly structured screenplays. It seems he couldn't bring that to the table with this film since the film goes back in forth on subplots including Desperaux, Roscurro, and even a scullery maid named Mig (Tracy Ullman) and it just ends up being so complicated and hard to follow. It was also very rushed and packed as some scenes seem to quickly end and a new scene or subplot is thrown into the mix only to end up making it confusing. Not to mention that, I felt there was no real weight in the film. Because of its silly nature, it was hard to find anything at stake since we all knew at the end of the film the silly bans would be overturned and everything would go back to normal. This brings us into the characters who were all empty and soulless. I couldn't sympathize with Desperaux as he felt so stale and lacked any true emotion. He felt like a blank slate character. Every single character in this film had nothing interesting or humanizing about them. They all felt stale, emotionless, and simply pale. There was also no character development between any of the characters as well because they all stayed the same throughout the majority of the film and just felt there to serve the story's purpose so the film can have it's happily ever after. The only exception to this is Rosccuro who did feel humanized and had an interesting development. He started a rat on a ship before ending up in the rat city underground and feeling like a misfit. I feel he should've been the protagonist of the film instead of Desperaux as he grows more as a character than the actual titular character. I also want to add that I wasn't a fan of the voice actors in the film. They just felt like they were cast because of their big names and didn't put their all in the film though it might be because of the convoluted script and complicated production. A good example is Dustin Hoffman as Roscurro. He's an excellent actor, but he didn't put his all into the role. It especially shows because, in the very same year, Hoffman excellently played the wise yet stern Master Shifu in "Kung Fu Panda" and showed his range. This performance though just comes off as stale. As far as the animation goes, it's also unimpressive. The models look okay at best though I feel the humans do come off as glassy-eyed at times though the backgrounds of this film looked terrible. It was clear they were handpainted and it did not much the computer animation models at all, which is saying something because "Bolt" did a similar technique and still looks amazing. This looks amateur at best which is disappointing given this came from an Oscar-winning visual effects studio.
Honestly, "The Tale of Desperaux" is a convoluted film. The story is a mess and hard to follow, the animation unimpressive and lousy, and the characters are bland and unsympathetic. This is a good example of an animated film based on a book where the story couldn't translate to the big screen. The book seems delightfully charming, but it's a story that shouldn't have been translated to the feature film. Some fairy tales indeed are better told than shown.