It begins with a rat causing trouble in a kitchen, but this is no Pixar knockoff.

Based on Kate DiCamillo's much-loved book for all-ages readers, The Tale of Despereaux—opening Friday—is a CGI animated family movie that's noticeably different from a lot of other recent family flicks. It's a straightforward fairy tale, devoid of pop culture references or big musical numbers, focused instead on a simple story of courage and heroism.

Gary Ross

Gary Ross

The man responsible for bringing this retro family movie to the big screen is Gary Ross, the director of Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, who adapted the book to the big screen and served as the film's producer.

Ross spoke with CT Movies about what the story means to him, what the process of adaptation was like, and which classic family films have inspired him.

I took my wife to see the movie. She had read the book and I had not, and it made me want to go back and read the book—

Gary Ross: Oh, cool! In fact, Kate [DiCamillo] says that what makes her happy is that people can see either one—or read either one—first and still enjoy the experience, so that's awfully nice.

How involved was she in the movie and the adaptation?

Ross: We talked with her the whole way through. She wrote an early treatment for us of the movie, so we have a great relationship.

What attracted you to this story?

Ross: I loved the characters and I loved the themes. You don't often get to do a movie that's about kindness, and people releasing themselves from anger in order to get free. All these characters are so wounded that they're visiting cruelty on one another, and they're hurting one another because they're hurt. I very much enjoyed the idea of making a movie that's about breaking that cycle.

It would be easy to make this story into a political parable, or a social commentary, but there's a timelessness to the story that the movie captures pretty well.

Ross: That's very kind of you to say. What works about fairy tales is that they endure, and the great thing about fairy tales is that you can explore big, epic things that you can't really explore in other situations. This is [a film] about forgiveness, and redemption, and kindness, and breaking a cycle of cruelty. These things are pretty big ideas, and hopefully they'll stay resonant. Kate wrote a book that lingers with you long after you read it, and, if we're successful, hopefully we've made a movie that will stay with you long after you leave the theater. We hope to start conversations between parents and kids, and inside families.

Article continues below

There's an interesting line at the end of the film that isn't in the book, which says that the movie isn't about coincidence—it's about good luck. That's a strange note to end on, because really it seems like the movie isn't about good luck—it's about the heroism of its characters, about the consequences of their actions. So in what sense would you say this is a story about luck?

Sigourney Weaver

Sigourney Weaver

Ross: Well, that's actually Sigourney [Weaver, who narrates the film]. One thing that Kate did that I love is that she made her narrator very idiosyncratic. The narrator is a real person, not just an omniscient voice. So Sigourney is playing with you there a little bit. I think she means "good luck" a bit ironically. In other words, she says it wasn't a mistake [what happens to all the characters], it was good fortune. And I think there's a little bit of a wink in the way she says that, because she knows there's more than just luck involved, to have things turn out so well. Sometimes she doesn't always say exactly what she means, but you take away something larger.

The film starts at a totally different point than the book does. Why?

Ross: Once you meet Despereaux, you're on the true line of the movie that's going to continue pretty unchanged. We go away from him for a little bit, but not for very long. So a lot of Roscuro's back story, if you will, is pulled up to the front so that once we meet Despereaux, we can go on this journey with him, because he really is our main protagonist.

There's a new character introduced that isn't in the book: The Soup Genie.

Ross: There are a lot of things like that. We also reimagined Ratworld. In the book it was just these dark corners of cells, and we created this huge civilization for it that was a lot more similar to Mouseworld than the way Kate wrote it. Sometimes a movie just wants a little bit of adventure, and a sense of size and scope, and that was a character that we just had fun with. There's a little bit if whimsy involved, and it's the kind of thing that works really well on the screen, probably even better than it would on the pages of a book. So like I said, what we're trying to do is to maintain a sort of buoyancy and fun, and to maintain the spirit of Kate's book. She understands that everything isn't literal.

The title character in his youth

The title character in his youth

You wrote this screenplay, and you produced this film. Why didn't you direct it?

Ross: We all share a lot of roles on the movie. I directed all the actors, and I did all the sound work in L.A., but I didn't feel comfortable taking a directing credit when these guys [directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen] were on the ground in England the whole time, on a daily basis. It doesn't really matter how the credits shake out. It matters that we ended up with the movie we want, and that people enjoy it. And it was also a way of letting Sam and Rob have it to themselves a little bit, but we all shared the duties a lot. There was more than enough work for everyone.

Article continues below

So were you involved with the casting of the voice actors?

Ross: Yeah, I cast all the parts.

What's that process like?

Ross: Well, a lot of these actors are my friends, you know? Like Sigourney, and Kevin Kline, and Frank Langella, I did the movie Dave with them, so it goes all the way back to that. And William H. Macy did my last movie [Seabiscuit]. In terms of other people, Dustin Hoffman was in my mind for a long time; the chance to work with someone like Dustin is a wonderful opportunity. Whenever we'd record Dustin, there was probably an equal amount of time spent just asking him to tell stories about the variety of wonderful movies he's made over the years as there was doing the work.

There's a sort of out-of-time quality to this movie that's really different from a lot of other family movies. It's not like, say, Shrek, where you have a lot of pop culture references.

Ross: Yeah, Kate wrote a timeless movie. It's not rooted in any time. It's not rooted in pop culture or in the moment, and I think that's what makes it lasting. I think there are people reading this now as a 9- or a 10-year-old who are going to read it to their kids, just as I my give things that I read as a child, just like my wife gives Charlotte's Web to our child.

Princess Pea and Despereaux

Princess Pea and Despereaux

There are things about a fairy tale that are just so epic, and so human, that they really sort of transcend that. There's nothing wrong with those pop culture movies—I mean, I go to them—but this was a chance to make something that's hopefully very rich and classic, with a lot of wonderful themes that are going to last. That's what Kate did, and that's what we tried to do.

So did you intend to make a "different kind" of family movie?

Ross: Sure we did. I think we're very aware that we're different. First of all, we're not a pop culture comedy, and that's what most [recent family films] have been. We're kind of a classic fairy tale, almost a throwback to the vintage days of Disney. We're aware that it's a little bit retro in that respect, but at the same time, we're using a lot of new techniques, and I think we're taking the genre places it hasn't been, or at least hasn't been in a while. So we're definitely aware that we're different from other movies. There's no question.

Article continues below

You mention "vintage" movies. Are there any that you held as an example or a model for this movie?

Ross: I love all the old classic Disney movies. Pinocchio. There are obviously tons of them that anybody growing up on that stuff takes with them their whole lives, and I'm an admirer of a lot of classic animation and fairy tales. I grew up on a book of Grimm's fairy tales that I kind of wore out again and again. That's all stuff that lingers with you.