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The Tale of Despereaux: Small Mouse, Big Heart

  • Rebecca Cusey Contributing Writer
  • Updated Dec 19, 2008
<i>The Tale of Despereaux</i>:  Small Mouse, Big Heart

The Tale of Despereaux

, an animated family movie opening December 19, is a whimsical fairy tale with a powerful theme of forgiveness woven throughout.

It stars a small but courageous mouse, Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) and a big-hearted rat Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman).  The film is based on the children’s book of the same name written by Kate DiCamillo. I sat down in Hollywood with the producer and screenwriter of the film, Gary Ross, who was also behind other movies such as Seabiscuit, Dave, and Big (with Tom Hanks).

“You know, I think there’s kind of an indomitable spirit in a lot of these characters,” said Ross, “I mean, you can see it in Seabiscuit, for the people as well as the horse, you can certainly see it in Despereaux, and some of the earlier stuff I did.”

The film opens when Roscuro comes to a happy kingdom on the biggest day of the year, the Soup Festival. He unintentionally causes havoc that leads to tragedy. The happy kingdom plunges into grey despair. Even soup is outlawed. Princess Pea (voiced by Emma Watson) and her servant girl Mig (voiced by Tracey Ullman) are both filled with longings for happier days. Roscuro, banished to brutal Ratworld in the sewers, yearns for sunlight and fills his days with regret. When his attempts at making amends are rejected, his heart turns to vengeance.

Despereaux, a tiny mouse with a huge heart, is born into this kingdom in crisis. He is an unusual mouse. He does not scamper or cower like the other mice. He faces the world with eyes wide open and a chivalric thirst for noble adventure in his heart. “Despereaux, he refuses to be pessimistic, he refuses to be fatalistic,” said Ross, “He refuses to sacrifice faith or hope. … And Despereaux is able to break a chain of unintended cruelty that is going on. A rat was hurt so he hurt a princess and a princess was hurt so she hurt a servant girl. And a servant girl had been hurting for so long. There’s this circle of pain being visited. And he’s able to redeem them from that.”

The resolution of the movie, unlike so many of Hollywood’s offerings, is a scene of repentance, asking for forgiveness, and granting of forgiveness.

“In a lot of movies, there’s a coarse element to them in which you beat the bad guy,” said Ross, “And this movie doesn’t operate just on that level. It’s about grace and faith and forgiveness, and hope.  And that there’s a redemption in the movie as a result of that. And people are redeemed from their own personal darkness. They’ve lost their way. They find their way. It isn’t just about a bad guy being defeated. It’s about finding your own sense of hope inside you. And that’s a more sophisticated message, I think.”

Roscuro, especially, loses himself in darkness and refinds himself in light. Ross agreed, “Roscuro keeps thinking the world will treat him the way he sees the world. The world just treats him like a rat. He’s so wounded and so hurt that it turns to vengeance in his heart. But it’s not who he is ultimately. Anyone who is vengeful ultimately is just wounded. It’s a question of not being wounded anymore.”

Despereaux, in his mind, is a gentleman and a knight on a quest to serve the princess. While other mice literally ingest books in the castle library, he has ingested, figuratively, stories of noble knights and their daring deeds. Chivalry becomes a part of the mouse’s internal framework. “It’s interesting,” said Ross, “It’s the thing I connected to least at the outset and I’ve grown to understand it more over time. Chivalry is about having a personal code of ethics where you do the right thing and honor people in that respect. It’s about conquering your own smallness and your own pettiness and your own fear.  And chivalry is about having an internal ethical code and an internal morality. And living by that and having the guts and the courage to live by that despite what adversity or the culture may present to you. And so that’s what that chivalry code was. There are things higher than our own immediate survival, opportunism, or whatever you want. You could displace the word chivalry with courage I think. What is courage? Courage is about following your own ethics.”

The movie is rated G. Although it has some tense, and intense, scenes, there are no crass jokes or wisecracks, no inappropriate content. In fact, the film is wholly sincere, straightforward and gentle. “I hope we’ve made a movie that people who are afraid of movies will go see. Everybody should be able to see a movie at Christmas,” said Ross, “I understand well that there are parts of the country that feel there’s a coarseness in the culture and what comes out of Hollywood that may be somewhat off-putting. But I’d also say that everybody can embrace the values of faith and hope and grace and redemption. Everyone. And I’m very proud that I made a G rated movie that people can embrace and go to and participate with their family where there’s enough in it that’s provocative for adults thematically and in terms of the content where the whole family can actually get something out of this. And that has wonderful values and messages, especially at Christmastime.”

Ross didn’t want just to make a G movie, or to remove objectionable content.  He wanted to make a G movie with a punch. “This is a movie that everybody can go to. I think they’ll feel they’ve had a little meat with their meal. There’s protein in this. It’s not just sugar,” he said, “It’s something that’s provocative for family and leaves you with a feeling that is a little bit deeper than just a disposable experience. I think people don’t just react to things that are offensive out of Hollywood. They react to the emptiness of what comes out of here sometimes. And I think this is an experience may linger with you a little bit. Hopefully. For kids and their parents.”

Ultimately, Ross feels the most provocative movies should be the ones with values. “Where is your mind more provoked and alive than when you’re at church, Right?” he said, “It doesn’t have to be a dumbed down message. It can be a very provocative and engaging one and still be an affirmation of values and not, you know, a piece of coarseness that comes from the West Coast.”

Featuring the voice talents of Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick, Emma Watson and Tracey Ullman, The Tale of Despereaux opens in theaters nationwide on December 19, 2008.  Go here for more information.  Click here to read our review.