Tales of the DESPEREAUX Junket

     December 17, 2008

Written by Cal Kemp

Universal is bowing “The Tale of Desperaux” this Friday and, while there’s nothing inherently holiday related to the plot, the family-friendly story has chosen the right season for a (welcomely complex) tale of, in the words of its source material’s original title, “a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread”.

Giving voice to a myriad of fantastic characters is an equally-myriad selection of Hollywood’s finest including Dustin Hoffman as a rat named Roscuro, Matthew Broderick as the titular mouse-hero Despereaux, Emma Watson as the human Princess Pea and Sigourney Weaver as the omnipresent narrator. Together, the four took the stage for one of the strangest press conferences I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending. I say strange because — in a moment I never really expected to ever encounter in life — Dustin Hoffman pulled a hamster from his pocket and revealed that he had been keeping it hidden in his jacket for the first part of the interview.

“I’m sorry about this,” mumbled Hoffman with an eternally sardonic deadpan and the fluffy creature running between the table of actors, “I was hoping for a better take.”

The level of playful interaction onstage was proof positive that each talent enjoyed their several-year stint on the project, coming back time and time again as animators worked to achieve the unique look and feel of the film. In addition to the painterly quality of the animation, the film is arranged in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, an increasing trend for animated fare that gives a larger, more-epic feel to the storyline.

“We’re trying to do something that has a slightly more classical feeling than other things that may be more rooted in pop-culture,” explained writer/producer Gary Ross and, sure enough, the film, refreshingly, doesn’t have a single trace of pop-irony or cynicism.

Broderick, whose modest-but-determined answers most mirrored the personality of his character, explained that he felt it was important to view Despereaux as a man and not a mouse as the character’s bravery comes from his unwillingness to give in to mouse-conventions that call for mandatory cowering and fear.

Hoffman, also like his character, playfully ribbed at Broderick, shouting at one point, “There’s not a sound-bite in that!” in response to one of his answers.

“We met years and years and years ago,” said Hoffman of working with Broderick before sighing and adding, “and we were friends and we did a film called ‘Family Business’ together and it did terrible and we vowed never to work together again.”

“It feels like it’s not patronizing to children,” offered Emma Watson to get back on-topic, ironically the most determined and serious of the cast, “The messages of the film feel very profound and very topical.” – Herm

Watson also seemed eager to shed some of her “Harry Potter” character’s persona and slip into the role of the Princess, though Sigourney Weaver herself was excited to be sitting next to her.

“I didn’t realize until I sat down next to you that you were Hermione!” said Weaver with glee,”We worship you!”

Weaver’s own character — though never visually represented — has a strong manifestation throughout the film. Claiming that her narrator is “Children’s eccentric aunt with a cigarette,” she invited interns into the recording room so that she’d have someone to tell the story to.

“She’s going to take care of them,” said Weaver of the child audience, “but she’s going to tell them things that aren’t pleasant because that’s the way life is.”

In a somewhat rare moment of seriousness, Hoffman offered up his thoughts on the film’s important message: “In that first five minutes when [Sigorney] says, ‘…some people think a rat is a rat no matter where it’s from,’ That’s a very important line because if you just insert another nationality or another race in there, then you start to see what the movie’s talking about.”

But Hoffman, like the film’s own sense of adventure, goes to show that a serious message doesn’t mean that you can’t suddenly pull something fantastic out of your pocket.

The Tale of Despereaux” opens Friday, December 19.

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