Because The Tale of Despereaux is the only really kiddie-centric offering this holiday season, it will probably do pretty well at the box office—and, much like the movie itself, that’s OK, but not very exciting for anybody. Back when this version of Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book was in the hands of Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville), there was cause for some expectations of a truly inspired film. Dial those expectations down about 50 notches and you’re probably about where you should be, but a cup or three of espresso before sitting down with Despereaux might not hurt. If you’re under 12, you can skip the suggested caffeination. There’s nothing actually wrong with Despereaux, but there’s nothing all that right with it either.
The story is surprisingly convoluted in that it is a good bit less about its tiny hero with big ears, Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), than it is about a decidedly less cute representative of rodentia, the rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman). The movie also tells the plight of a somewhat bland princess (Emma Watson) and depicts the reasonable resentment of an aptly named serving girl/wanna-be princess Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman)—and includes the whole downbeat populace of the country (maybe it’s a town) of Dor. The strange thing about it all is that the individual bits and pieces don’t really lead to enough drama or action or anything else that could be termed terribly exciting. Rising to the heights of the perfunctory is at least a couple once-upon-a-times shy of the full Brothers Grimm.
The events of the film are set in motion when Roscuro—a ship rat of a gourmand bent—arrives in Dor on the day of the big soup festival, which doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but seems to thrill the people of Dorian to no end. Trouble arises when Roscuro—overwhelmed by the delicious aroma of the soup—falls from his perch and into the queen’s bowl of soup. This so unnerves the lady that she either expires from shock or faints into the bowl and drowns. In either case, she has handed in her soup ladle—plunging the king into reels and reels of mopey mandolin strumming, but not before he outlaws soup and rats. While I can live without either one, the decree plunges Dor into despair, gray skies and drought.
Meanwhile, Despereaux is born in Mouseworld (yep, that’s what they call it) and poses an immediate problem since he won’t behave like a proper mouse—meaning he’s not afraid of anything and rather than eat a book, he reads it. Worse, the book gives him notions, so when he finds the heartsore princess he decides to be her knight in shining armor. Complications arise, but, being a kid’s film, you may be sure it will work out, which is exactly as it should be. If only it were a little more involving.
There are some nice touches—like a character made out of vegetables and fruit in the style of a Giuseppe Arcimboldo painting—and a couple good voice performances. Much as he did with Kung Fu Panda earlier this year, Dustin Hoffman takes the honors here, though Ciarán Hinds as the evil king-rat Botticelli (who looks and dresses suspiciously like Count Orlok in Murnau’s Nosferatu) offers some competition. There are also the requisite positive children’s movie messages, which the film makes sure everyone gets by having narrator Sigourney Weaver spell them out—none too enthusiastically. But then enthusiasm seems to be generally in short supply in this blandly entertaining movie.