Mice have enjoyed a great ride in the movies. The animated variety first rose to prominence thanks to Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse in the late 20s, enjoyed a rebirth as heroes in the late 70s and 80s with The Rescuers, The Secret of NIMH, The Great Mouse Detective, and An American Tail, and overflowed into live-action territory a few years later with Stuart Little. More recently, Flushed Away was a superior entertainment about a spoiled upper-class mouse who must learn to survive in the wild and wooly sewers, while the superb Ratatouille gave a rat a rare favorable turn in the spotlight as a culinary artist.
Adapted by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Dave) from the award-winning book by Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux features both a rat and a mouse in leading roles, but the self-described fairy tale is much more than a slapdash character study of two rodents. The setup makes it sound like a cousin to both Flushed Away and Ratatouille: a disgraced rat must learn to survive in a dark dungeon, a mouse develops a friendship with a human, and gourmet soup features prominently. Yet as the tale unfolds, it deepens and broadens its themes to a welcome degree. Though it never climbs too far above average and too often embraces the familiar, Despereaux remains a gentle and nurturing children's story, imparting lessons without being too condescending to its audience.
While Despereaux is aimed squarely at the little ones, adults may enjoy the top-notch animation and appreciate the above average performances by a celebrity voice cast (Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci) that is well matched to the characters they play, which is a rare pleasure indeed.
Helmed by veteran animators Sam Fell, who co-directed Flushed Away, and Rob Stevenhagen, who steps into the director's chair for the first time, The Tale of Despereaux gets off to a rough start because its first few scenes are so reminiscent of other films. As in Ratatouille, a legendary master chef (Kevin Kline) fusses over a signature dish, receives assistance from a non-human assistant (Stanley Tucci), and is interrupted by a rat, who inadvertently causes disaster. Similar to Flushed Away, the rat then finds himself unexpectedly living in a subterranean world he never knew existed.
Once it gets past these scenes, Despereaux begins to assert its own personality. The rat, named Roscoro (Dustin Hoffman), is not a budding culinary artist, but instead a ship-bound rat who comes ashore with a sailor just as the Kingdom of Dor is celebrating its most beloved holiday, Soup Day. Roscoro is haunted by guilt over his role in the soup-related tragedy, which prompted the King to banish soup and rats from Dor. The land itself suffers; rain never falls and sunlight is rarely seen. Having fallen down a grating into the dungeons far beneath the royal castle, Roscoro is taken in by Botticelli (Ciaran Hinds), the mayor of Ratworld, but Roscoro can't bring himself to feast on flesh, as the other rats do. He is an outsider, a loner, alone, forgotten, and unable to forgive himself.
Years pass and Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) is born in Mouseworld, which is above Ratworld, beneath the castle. He is tiny and has huge ears. What really sets him apart from the other mice, though, is his courage. He never learns to cower or scurry, which makes his parents (William H. Macy and Frances Conroy) and school principal (Richard Jenkins) worry and fret that he will never fit in with the other mice. He must learn to be timid; that is what defines a mouse. Despereaux is an outsider and often alone, but he has no problem with being different. He accepts himself for what he is, and cannot imagine changing to please others. When he is asked, "Are you a man or a mouse?" he replies "I am a gentleman."
In time, Despereaux comes in contact with Princess Pea (Emma Watson), who lives unhappily locked up in the castle, longing for freedom, and crosses paths with downtrodden Roscoro and depressed jailer Gregory (Robbie Coltrane) in the dungeons. Unexpectedly figuring into the plot is dowdy servant girl Mig (Tracey Ullman), who initially doesn't seem to have anything much to do with anybody.
The various worlds in The Tale of Despereaux are sharply delineated, which makes it easy to follow the characters as the story bounces around between them. Mouseworld is tidy, orderly, and designed like a tourist's vision of a stock European village; Ratworld is properly dirty and crowded, with various structures looking like they're about to topple over; the castle is pristine, sparsely furnished, and very cold-looking.
Tying things together, occasionally even pausing the story, is the calm, kindly narration by Sigourney Weaver. Evidently the original book featured the author addressing the reader directly, and this is carried over in the narration. It's a more prosaic, traditional method than, say, Peter Falk reading the story of The Princess Bride to Fred Savage, and is one element that could probably have been dropped. As a teaching device for children, I can understand why it's included, but it doesn't work as well in a movie as it does in a book.
The narration, even though it's inserted as unobtrusively as possible, adds to the drag factor, which is present during some of the more dour sequences. The film runs 100 minutes, which includes the lengthy closing credits, and feels as though it could have been trimmed a bit.
As serious as it is, The Tale of Despereaux proves to be a diverting, lively entertainment with several sprightly action sequences, a few good laughs, and a really good encounter between cat and mouse. It should please both children and parents alike.