In the Kingdom of Dor, soup is amazing. Even a whiff of royal chef Andre's scrumptious potage is almost like having a meal. So to celebrate this culinary sensation, everyone gathers at an "event bigger than Christmas" where Andre dishes up his yearly specialty.
And everyone includes a rat named Roscuro.
Little does anyone know, this well-meaning pest will turn Dor upside down. When he accidentally plunges into the queen's soup, he scares her, quite literally, to death. She falls face first into the bowl and never wakes up.
Dor's grief-stricken king hastily bans soup—and pronounces all rats illegal, relegating them to dark and sinister Ratworld. Then something strange happens: The sun disappears from Dor. Clouds cover the land, but the rain refuses to fall. Gloom descends. By way of explanation, the narrator states that the rats' presence was a very natural thing, and that when something as unnatural as their banishment occurs, everyone hurts.
Life seems so dreary that the king's daughter, Princess Pea, wonders if there's even a little bit of light anywhere in the world. And times are so dark ... that they cry out for a hero! A tiny mouse named Despereaux Tilling is that hero. And it doesn't matter a bit that his shape and size don't make him look like one.
Below the castle in Mouseworld, The Tale of Despereaux begins with fear. But Despereaux doesn't have the ability to feel it. Unlike his peers, he's born with his eyes wide open. He doesn't scurry or cower at pictures of carving knives as his classmates do. He even has the audacity to draw cats (gasp!) on his notebook. Obviously, his heartbroken parents are concerned by these "unmeek behaviors" and learning impediments. After all, every mouse worth his cheese knows the very essence of being a mouse is to be afraid.
Despereaux doesn't care. His courage, honor, chivalry and thirst for adventure lead him beyond Mouseworld's confining expectations. He defies the status quo to speak to Princess Pea and address her heart's longing. He dares to befriend Roscuro. And he has the gumption required to pursue justice and defend the weak.
Initially embittered by a rejection he gets from the princess, Roscuro eventually chooses to forgive and apologize. Rather than condemn the rat's sometimes malevolent actions, Pea returns the apology. It turns out that grief really isn't the strongest thing someone can feel. Forgiveness is. And Roscuro's single act of forgiveness turns life around for the princess and for Dor.
Another of Despereaux's gems is its underlying belief that no one need be limited by physical appearance. Despereaux, for example, is smaller than other mice, but he is mightier in spirit and more capable than all of them. And though he is taunted for his appearance, his unusually large eyes and ears enable him to see and hear more than anyone else in Mouseworld.
Echoing this theme is plain and homely Mig, who longs to be a beautiful princess. Though she is a peasant girl whose lot in life is to slop pigs and be sold as a servant, she pines for another identity. She finally finds solace and beauty when she discovers she truly is a princess in someone's eyes. Her story also illuminates the need for every little girl to have a daddy to make her feel special.
Despereaux learns to read and appreciate books rather than eat them like his fellow mice do. Through his newfound love of reading, he embraces life and chases after courage, graciousness and nobility. He also learns more about overcoming difficulties through the princess and her story—she is not a true prisoner because she still possesses hope.
Perhaps above all, Despereaux illustrates the importance of extending grace in the face of misunderstanding. It's really all a series of knee-jerk responses to pain that throws Dor into gloom in the first place. The king hurts Roscuro. The rat hurts the princess after she hurts him. The princess hurts Mig by inadvertently belittling her. And Mig hurts the princess in retaliation. But a sincere apology sets each quarrel right.
Only then does the sun shine in Dor again.
Little if anything in The Tale of Despereaux is overtly spiritual. But in a possible nod toward magic, Chef Andre's recipes somewhat resemble a potion book, and he puts together soup with the help of a creature named Baldo, who is made up of various floating vegetables. Several mice believe Despereaux is a ghost when he returns to Mouseworld, because he's covered in white dust. The narrator mentions characters meeting their destiny.
Because this tale is set in a medieval castle, it's no surprise that much of the violent content centers on knights and sword fights. For example, knights chase after Roscuro, swinging maces and battleaxes at him. An ax hits the back of a knight's helmet, barely missing Roscuro, and a metal ball does eventually hit the rat in the head, knocking him out. Despereaux wields a needle "sword" with which he fights various opponents, once plunging it into Andre's foot.
A dragon blows fire at a knight who swings at him with a sword.
Roscuro and Despereaux get thrown across rooms and fall from great heights. Both punch and kick rats in their attempts to break free from Ratworld. Despereaux falls on his head after tumbling down stairs and running through 17 snapping mousetraps.
In tense scenes that may worry younger children, Despereaux (who is in the wrong place at the wrong time) and Pea (who has been kidnapped) end up in Ratworld's Colosseum-like arena. In this stadium, a snarling cat chases Despereaux, swiping at him with open claws, growling and knocking him against a wall. The rat king later holds Despereaux over the sharp-toothed cat as bait. Later, in the same arena, the princess is tied down by ropes and taken to the floor where she is supposed to be the rats' dinner. Crowds of rats chant "Eat! Eat!" as they cheer the "games" on. Roscuro throws a villainous rat into the hungry cat's cage, a messy death implied.
Andre and Baldo throw vegetables and bottles, and they punch each other. In cahoots with Roscuro, Mig carries a cleaver and some rope, both intended to help them overthrow Princess Pea.
Crude or Profane Language
A surprised mouse blurts "oh my gosh!" Under her breath, Mig exclaims God's name, and she complains about a "damp, dank place" with an accent that led some in the theater to hear it as "d--n, dank ..." Name-calling includes "crazy" and "weird."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Ratworld is dark and sinister, with bridges and buildings built from ribs and other bones. When entering this gruesome place, Despereaux encounters an old skull that is later used as a carriage.
Despereaux might be brave, but sometimes his courage propels him to defy Mouseworld's laws—which the Mouse Council says are there to protect them and their way of life. The little hero doesn't maliciously or self-seekingly break rules, but he nonetheless oversteps his boundaries.
(Everything works out fine for Despereaux, of course, but parents might want to try to flip that result on its head and use the mouse's flaw as an opportunity to discuss respect with their children—especially when the rules kids face don't seem to make sense to them.)
Though his motive for saving the mouse is honorable, Roscuro lies to the rat king, saying he wants to take Despereaux from the arena in order to eat him himself.
Over the centuries, fairy tales have been used to teach real-life lessons in more enduring ways than realistic fare often can. In The Tale of Despereaux, perhaps it's the wonder of talking animals coupled with classical nobility, courage and hope that makes facing serious subjects such as longing, forgiveness, fear and bravery less daunting for young audiences.
And indeed, children are likely to be as significantly influenced by the movie as they are by the Newbery Award-winning book of the same title. Author Kate DiCamillo says of Despereaux's encouraging plot, "We're always underestimating children, but those major themes of how to be brave, how to be courageous, how to love, how to forgive, those things are constant themes in their lives, too."
They usually come with a bit of darkness designed to drive home their points (here, sword-swinging knights, a fire-breathing dragon, a kidnapping and life-threatening Colosseum-style clashes fill that role), but fairy tales can still provide a refreshing perspective on life's heavier moments—even for adults. Yes, we adults all feel small sometimes, too. We all feel some tasks at hand are insurmountable. And honest and simple stories such as Despereaux's can encourage both child and parent in fantastical yet important ways.