Movie Mom

Movie Mom

The Tale of Despereaux

posted by Nell Minow
Lowest Recommended Age:Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating:G
Violence/Scariness:Cartoon/action peril including swords, character tied and given to animals to be devoured, traps, falling, scary cat, gladiator-style fighting, sad on-screen death of a parent (from shock)
Diversity Issues:None
Movie Release Date:December 19, 2008
DVD Release Date:April 7, 2009
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Nudity/Sex: None
Alcohol/Drugs: Wine
Violence/Scariness: Cartoon/action peril including swords, character tied and given to animals to be devoured, traps, falling, scary cat, gladiator-style fighting, sad on-screen death of a parent (from shock)
Diversity Issues: None
Movie Release Date: December 19, 2008
DVD Release Date: April 7, 2009

The visuals are rich and inviting but a complicated three-part story makes an uneasy transition to screen for the well-loved book by Kate DiCamillo.

Sigourney Weaver narrates the story, beginning with the description of a hero we will not meet for a while, the first of several confusing narrative zig-zags. Before we can meet the title character we must follow a sea-faring rat named Roscuro (voice of Dustin Hoffman) who causes a lot of trouble when he falls into a bowl of soup. And this is not just any soup. This is the soup of the queen of Dor, a country where soup is the national passion. The most important day of the year is the day the new soup presented by the royal chef (voice of Kevin Kline), a true artiste with a muse made of vegetables. Curious Roscuro accidentally falls into the bowl of the queen and she is so shocked that she dies. The grieving king bans soup — and rats — and the kingdom becomes cold and sad, the skies perpetually overcast but never finding the release of rain.


Meanwhile a small mouse with very big ears named Despereaux (voice of Matthew Broderick) cannot seem to learn important mouse skills like cowering. He is brave, adventuresome, and chivalrous. He is a gentleman. And a lonely gap-toothed scullery maid envies the princess and begins to think maybe she should replace her.

The animation is truly magnificent, brilliantly imagined and gorgeously realized. There are a hundred brilliant details from the play of light in the dungeon to the dash across the mousetraps and an Archimboldo-inspired vegetable-man muse. The vistas are jewel-toned and glowing and the physical properties are wonderfully real and thrillingly vivid. The story, however, is less so, over-complicated and murky. What happens in front of those beautiful backgrounds is never quite as interesting as the setting.


  • Laura

    The book is one of the few Newbery winners I couldn’t make it through. Should I try again before venturing out to see the movie?

  • Brian

    My 3rd grade daughter and my wife read this book together every night in preparation of the movie. They loved it and I am almost finished with it. The book can be confusing but it is well worth it in the end. I hope the movie is as good as the book.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks, Brian — the books are complex and assume that the reader is attentive and thoughtful, which is part of what makes them so good. I think your family will enjoy the movie — let me know what you think!

  • Steve P.

    My daughter absolutely loved this movie. We went early this morning – she’s a second grader, and wasn’t scared at all – I’d recommend this for Kindergarten and up. Probably not for the toddlers or pre-schoolers. What a beautiful movie – enjoy!!

  • Nell Minow

    I’m delighted to hear it, Steve! I think second to sixth-graders and their families will really appreciate this gorgeous film.

  • http://NA Jake

    Actually, this film will also appeal to post-3rd grade groups such English majors and writers. 😉 It’s filled with irony, complex parallels, and some quite brilliant world-building. I’d have to say that the only thing that really detracts from the experience for older viewers is Sigourney Weaver’s slightly condescending narration. Other than that, it’s still a funny, smart watch for the playfully analytical.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks for a great comment, Jake! Beautifully expressed and I agree entirely. One of my frustrations with the way this site is set up is that the age recommendations are very inflexible but there is always an implied “and up” after the suggested age range. I’m so glad you enjoyed the film and I hope you will visit often and let me know what you think about the movies you see.

  • jestrfyl

    I was a little disappointed by the book. However, I realized the animation potential. When I saw the trailer I was thrilled – the visuals almost re-define animation; extremely well done. Sadly, I feel the story is once again not living up to the potential. I will go see the film, but only once it makes its way to the dollar cinema.
    One the subject of animation, what do you know about the newest Studio Ghibli film; will it come to the states? I thought the great director Miyazaki was retiring. Any clue or hope will be gratefully received.

  • Nell Minow

    A couple of weeks ago Miyazeki announced two new films from his “young staff.” I don’t know how much involvement that means from him. “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” has announced English-speaking voice talent: Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Fankie Jonas, Noah Cyrys and Cloris Leachman And it is expected to come to the US in 2009. If I hear any more, I’ll post it!

  • jestrfyl

    Thanks! I believe I actually saw a trailer for this film once – my kids and I got all excited. This is a powerhouse studio – artistic in the extreme, good storytellers, and imaginative. It is no wonder the Lasseter of Pixar Studios promotes these so hard. I look forward to the film and your comments on it.

  • Scott Farrell

    I’m glad to see so much focus on the concept of chivalry in this movie (which I haven’t seen yet, but soon will). I was very impressed with some comments by director Gary Ross (Big, Seabiscuit) in a recent on-line interview – in which he said that initially he found the story’s element of chivalry uninteresting, but as he read, he began to realize that “chivalry” was about holding your beliefs and principles in the face of disillusion and fatalism, and about following an internal “code of ethics” that requires a hero to put aside pettiness and self-interest. And that, he found, is a very powerful story theme.
    Chivalry, in short, is about having the strength of conviction necessary to break a cycle of vengeance or corruption. That’s what a hero should do – not just “beat up” a bad guy. It’s nice to see a big-shot Hollywood director speaking with such conviction about the concept of chivalry. Will wonders never cease?
    Thanks, as always Nell, for a very thoughtful review of Despereaux.
    Scott Farrell
    Director, Chivalry Today Educational Program

  • Nell Minow

    It is always good to hear from you, Scott. I would love to have seen the chivalry theme explored even more in this film. It is great to have an opportunity to talk to kids about the goal of protecting the weak and fighting for justice.

  • Jane

    I found this film unsuitable for children under 7, many of whom were in the audience as the result of the G-rating. Do kids really need to see a princess starting to get eaten alive by rats?! I can’t believe the review above — and none of the major critics’ reviews — mentioned that bit of excessive violence/peril in this movie. Gratuitous mysogyny and disgusting violence, even if the book’s author was a woman. Ugh!

  • Nell Minow

    Thank you, Jane, and I have clarified my caution to parents in the review to underscore the points I tried to make about concerns they might have about the movie’s appropriateness. I appreciate your comment.

  • Susan

    I totally agree with you Jane, but I would go further. Besides the mysogynistic scene of woman tied up and fed to rats, our hero was put in an ancient gladiator type setting (without even the sword) to be eaten alive by a wild beast (here a cat) while spectators all watched on and coaxed the blood-thirsty cat. This was not what they advertised with the way-cute mouse trailers. Me and my 3-year-old were caught in a bonafide mouse trap of movie deceptiveness. Of course little kids didn’t roam around restless. They were gazing at the calamity in shock and awe. I can’t believe all the reviews for this movie for kids are good.

  • Nell Minow

    Thank you, Susan. This is very helpful. In my review, I made it clear that the movie was too violent and hard to follow for younger kids. I never recommend taking any child under 5 to a feature film in a theater unless it is one of the very rare movies like Clifford or Curious George specifically made for pre-schoolers. And I always recommend leaving the theater if you find a film inappropriate. Children will be relieved and reassured if you remove them from a disturbing film.

  • Your Name

    Have you or are you going to be doing a review of Marley and Me? Thanks.

  • Nell Minow

    Yes, I do intend to review “Marley and Me.” I was not able to get to it before the holidays; sorry about that.

  • Your Name

    I don’t understand…how is the scene with the princess and the rats misogynistic? Creepy and more than a little gross, absolutely, but mysogynistic? If it had been a prince instead of a princess would it be mysandrystic? (gynous = female; andry = male)Did the movie imply at any time that she was going to be eaten simply because she was female?
    Roscuro seemed to only want revenge on that particular character, not women in general, otherwise he would have tossed the handmaiden in too. The other rats seemed to have more of an anti-human bias than a specifically anti-woman bias, but perhaps I missed something. It merely struck me as them being out for themselves and their stomachs, and not trying to make a statement about keeping women down.
    Honestly, you could say that the whole rats and arena thing might be too gross, too intense ans depending on your take, too violent for a G movie. But mysogynstic? That’s reading between the lines a bit too much.

  • Nell Minow

    It is interesting that so many people have focused on that scene, which I did not find as disturbing as having the queen keel over at the beginning of the movie, leaving the king and the princess so devastated. I think that the gender issue relates not just to that scene but to the generally passive females throughout the story. But I agree that misogynistic is too strong a term.

  • traci

    Also looking for a review of Marley & Me – not sure if appropriate for children even though it has a PG rating….

  • Nell Minow

    I am sorry for the delay, Traci and I hope to review it soon. But in the meantime, I do not recommend it for kids because the dog dies at the end and it is very, very sad.

  • monkiecat

    This has got to be one of the weirdest kids movies I’ve ever seen… the muse (which my husband and I called the vegetable golem) seemed completely incongruous with the rest of the plot, which was itself pretty bizarre. I did a shocked ha! when the queen died in her soup, but it didn’t phaze the kids. My 7 year old burst into tears when the tied up princess was in the arena, which completely baffled me. I asked him what was wrong and he said “It’s just so sad!” Not scary, sad. It was just bizarre. I couldn’t fathom the rat’s actions at all. (Oh I just want to be forgiven! I’m so sorry for causing all these horrible events. Oh, wait – you don’t forgive me? Then I’ll kill you. Mmmmm – huh?) The title character’s main virtue seemed to be an absence of fear, rather than the courage to overcome fear for a worthy cause. It was just altogether odd.

  • Nell Minow

    Great comment, thanks. This is what I meant when I spoke of the uneasy translation to screen, Monkiecat. It works better in the book. But I think the title character’s main virtue was his commitment to chivalry — to honor, justice, and helping those in need.

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