Based on the children's book by Kate DiCamillo, "The Tale of Despereaux" is free of the bathroom humor and pop-cultural references permeating through most of today's animated features. The movie doesn't try to be hip, only to tell a nice story that brings with it positive messages and morals in a fable-like format. That is the good news. The bad news is that directors Sam Fell (2006's "Flushed Away
") and Robert Stevenhagen, working from a screenplay by Gary Ross (2003's "Seabiscuit
"), take themselves so seriously that it drains the fun right out of the experience. In a screening room full of kids, the film evoked mostly silence interrupted by the occasional crying. There was no laughing, no oohing or ahhing over the characters or the story, and no visible reaction at the end. If the reason for this is because the movie lulled the audience to sleep, it wouldn't come as a surprise.
The plot is a bit more complicated than the average family fare. This is not necessarily a criticism, but it does make it difficult to describe the plot in one or two sentences. In the kingdom of Dor, a community that celebrates Soup Day with the same passion they do Christmas, tragedy strikes when rat Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) unwittingly frightens the queen to death. With the king and his daughter, Princess Pea (Emma Watson), brokenhearted over the incident, a gloomy pall and a banning of soup is placed over the land, each day just as cloudy, despondent and rainless as the last. Roscuro, who loves the light and outside world, is banished to the dark Ratworld, existing both below the castle of humans and below the less vile Mouseworld.
It is in Mouseworld that Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) lives. Unlike the rest of the rodents, he is half their size, has bigger ears, and is more interested in reading storybooks than eating them. He is also mighty brave and curious, and falls in love with Princess Pea upon first sight of her. When he, too, is caught and sent to Ratworld, it opens Despereaux's eyes to the desperate need for peace and order to return to Dor. In an intersecting story, plain-jane farmer's daughter Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman) dreams of one day being royalty. She moves closer to her dream by becoming a servant in the king's castle, but is soon unknowingly being used as a pawn in Roscuro's plan for vengeance against Princess Pea.
Intermittently narrated by a soothingly voiced Sigourney Weaver (2008's "Baby Mama
"), "The Tale of Despereaux" earns points for meaning well and treating its story with a similar maturity to what Pixar's animated efforts hold. The difference between the two is that, while Pixar consistently surprises with their level of creativity and scope, "The Tale of Despereaux" is in sore need of an upcharge in energy. For all of its strong points, this is a curiously lifeless motion picture, its emotional content so stuffy and its tone so understated that it almost becomes a chore to sit through. The characters, including little Despereaux, fail to engage the viewer as they should, and the narrative travels in so many directions that it often is difficult to figure out why things are happening and what the ultimate motives are.
Having seen the film little more than twenty-four hours since writing this review, its details have already begun to fade from memory. The computer animation is fine, but it lacks color and vibrancy. The various subplots blend together with little focus. Humor is virtually nonexistent. Subtlety is confused for dramatic weight. "The Tale of Despereaux" is being released to theaters just in time for the holiday season, but kids will be far more enchanted with the recent "Bolt
." This isn't a bad film by any stretch, but it is an indifferent and forgettable one.