The Tale of Despereaux is a sweet little fairy tale about a brave mouse and the distraught kingdom that needs him. Sincere and kind, but provocative enough to engross adults, the film breaks the mold of normal family entertainment. Gone are the wisecracking sidekicks, evil villains, and adult jokes. Instead, we see a story about wounded people hurting others, then finding redemption and reconciliation. The animated movie (rated G) is an adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's popular children's book.
The courageous little mouse Despereaux is born into a kingdom that has lost itself to sadness and fear after a great tragedy. There is no sunshine and no laughter. Worst of all, the country's production of warm, nourishing soup has been halted. The beautiful Princess Pea (voiced by Emma Watson) in the castle longs for joy again. Her heartbroken maid, Mig (voiced by Tracey Ullman), yearns to be loved as the princess is loved. The sadness of the kingdom trickles down to the tidy suburb of Mouseville, where little Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) cannot learn to cower or scamper like the other mice. He's just too brave. Instead, he finds himself drawn to knightly tales in the castle library. His inability to conform to the timid ways of Mouseville eventually leads to his departure from Mouseville and the beginning of his quest for adventure.
Down in the sewers of Ratworld, good-hearted rat Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) languishes far from the sun he loves. He regrets the accident that brought darkness to the kingdom, an accident he caused. When his attempts at righting his error are met with violent rejection, Roscuro lashes out in vengeance, tempting the maid to bitterness and putting the princess in peril. Despereaux, however, with his big heart and chivalrous code of ethics, never stops trying to save the princess. The little mouse with the big ears and even bigger heart never despairs and never gives up.
At this point, the movie takes an unusual turn. Instead of Roscuro and the maid getting what they deserve, the suffocating web of cruelty that has bound each character is unraveled by a more powerful act of forgiveness. Instead of a villain who is beaten by the hero, we see angry and hurt people turn away from the darkness within them. It is a film about redemption.
In the context of the film, the transgressions being forgiven are grave. This is no cheap grace, no easy reconciliation. The characters, especially Roscuro, are redeemed from real, serious, crimes. Forgiveness does not come easily, but it does come. And it releases the victim as well as the perpetrator.
The film, despite its dreamlike animation, has some intense scenes. The pacing is slow and gentle, without the frenetic laugh-a-minute pace in many kids' flicks. Although there are no wisecracks or explosions, no car chases or superheroes, it is a tale that is likely to stick with kids after the excitement of other movies has faded away.
Gary Ross, the producer and screenwriter of The Tale of Despereaux, also wrote and directed Seabiscuit and played a major part in such hits as Pleasantville, Dave, and Big (with Tom Hanks). We sat down at the Casa Del Mar Hotel in Santa Monica to discuss Despereaux.
The characters in Despereaux wound each other in serious ways, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, but are all transformed by forgiveness. "These people had wounded or hurt other people or had transgressed in a way that was holding them back in their own lives," said Ross, "and only through being forgiven and forgiving could they free themselves from that."
Forgiveness is not just something in a fairy tale. How does reconciliation happen in the real world? "I think that you have to understand that the only way that you can heal is through grace and forgiveness," said Ross. "And the only way you can better your own life and the world around you is to ultimately forgive and to put the spite or the vengeance that you might have in your heart behind you. Because it's gonna hold you back. It's gonna poison you."
Since grace is a word used frequently in faith communities, I asked Ross what he meant by the term. "In this case," he said, "I mean that there is an acceptance of a kind of a beauty or balance or a humanity that doesn't seek anything for its own self. When you give back to the world gracefully, the world gives back to you gracefully. You are at that point living within it. You are not trying to take from it. . . . There is a kind of wisdom and an understanding and a gentleness and a forgiveness and an open-hearted nature that allows for your humanity to take hold."
Light is a powerful symbol in the film, causing yearning in some characters and terror in others. "Light is knowledge, wisdom, full understanding, not keeping yourself in the darkness," Ross said. "It's a lack of ignorance, seeing things clearly and fully and not cowering, or being afraid. There's almost a kind of nakedness when one stands out in the light that one is revealed fully at the same time you're able to take the world in. That's what light does. It illuminates everything so clearly that you're not hiding or retreating from it anymore. Which I think is beautiful."
Ross sees these themes in secular terms, and he said he was proud to make a family movie that would be thought-provoking to people of faith and also touch a wider audience. "Faith. Hope. Grace. Forgiveness. These are not just religious buzz words," he said. "These are themes that should be resonant to everyone. There doesn't have to be the divide."