December 18, 2008

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The Tale of Despereaux (G)
A brave little mouse has adventures with a seafaring rat, a sad princess and a dark dungeon in The Tale of Despereaux, a beautifully animated fairy tale based on a children’s book.

Despereaux (voice of Matthew Broderick) is a big-eared, wide-eyed mouse who refuses to scurry or cower or otherwise demonstrate the fear that is required of a proper mouse. Instead of sneaking in to the library of the king’s castle (where he lives) to eat the books, he reads the books — and he is entranced by the stories of knights and chivalry and honor. And, where a good mouse would run and hide from humans, Despereaux is besotted when he sees the beautiful Princess Pea (Emma Watson), striking up a conversation with her. All this bravery makes Despereaux a suspicious character in the eyes of the mice council of elders, the ruling body in Mouseworld.

Mouseworld might be ruled by a narrow-minded group of mice, but it is a happy prosperous place compared to Ratworld, the dark, shadowy city in the castle dungeon where all the rats live. Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), heretofore a world-traveling rat who lived on a ship, finds himself trapped in Ratworld after an incident involving soup and the death of the queen — after which the heartbroken king outlaws both soup and rats and the kingdom of Dor becomes gray and rainless (something to do with the restorative properties of soup on weather). With the kingdom condemned to an eternity of days that look like February and Roscuro condemned to live in the sinister Ratworld, the setting is just right for the heroics of our courageous little mouse.

While it is still basically part of that rounded-edges style of modern animation, The Tale of Despereaux has a softer look, as though it is at least based on something hand-drawn. Its characters look like they’ve leapt out of a meticulously illustrated book. The mice look friendly and furry compared to the harried and shabby-looking rats. The people look human but not quite like photographic reproductions — it’s a very storybook look that gives the movie extra life and warmth.

And this is a good thing because Despereaux and company could use a little warmth. There’s something a bit scattered in this story — we jump from Roscuro to Despereaux to Ratworld to the humans in the castle and then, about halfway through, to a new subplot involving Mig (Tracey Ullman), a chubby maid for Princess Pea who herself dreams of being a princess. Each of these parts is solid but they don’t entirely pull together. It’s like melted chocolate-chip-type pieces — some milk, some semi-sweet, some white, some butterscotch — that are each individually rich and that melt enough to stick together but not enough to combine to create one consistent flavor. The unifying factor, I suppose, is narration by Sigourney Weaver. But there is something occasionally off-putting about her delivery (too sing-songy? too scoldy? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it) and occasionally jarring for the way it jerks the story into a new plot and for the way it suddenly spells out emotions that the cartoon characters were delivering quite subtly on their own.

Having said all that, this story-book-ish cartoon is a nice change of pace from the more zany cartoon antics of movies like Madagascar and Bolt. There’s a quietness that allows for a little more earnestness and a little more nuance in the characters but without significantly losing the attention of a young audience. I saw the movie in a theater full of kids of varying ages, including some who were definitely more preschool than elementary, and while they were quiet for a lot of the movie they weren’t squirmy. The Tale of Despereaux manages, despite its faults, to wrap up your attention in its charm and adventure. B

Rated G. Directed by Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen and written by Gary Ross (from a book by Kate DiCamillo), The Tale of Despereaux is an hour and 34 minutes long and is distributed by Universal Pictures. The film opens wide on Friday, Dec. 19.