Which came first, the rat or the mouse?
Doesn’t really matter. Even though Kate DiCamillo’s book “The Tale of Despereaux” came out in 2003 — and won a Newbery Medal for outstanding children’s literature — the animated film version still feels like a rip-off of “Ratatouille,” which was only released last year.
That’s partly because of the premise: It’s a food-laden fairy tale about a rodent (voiced by Matthew Broderick) who must overcome his underdog status to save the day.
But the bigger problem is its lack of comparative charm. Whereas the gorgeous, sophisticated “Ratatouille” was both a crowd-pleaser and a critical favorite, duly winning the Academy Award for best animated feature, “Despereaux” feels obvious, preachy and heavy-handed.
And that’s a surprise given that the script was co-written and produced by Gary Ross, whose previous screenplays include the smart, winning “Dave” and “Pleasantville.” Aside from its muted tones and a pleasing softness to the creatures’ fur and whiskers, there’s not a whole lot of subtlety to be found here in the film from directors Sam Fell (“Flushed Away”) and longtime animator Robert Stevenhagen — certainly not in the way it shifts awkwardly among three plots, all of which are connected to Princess Pea (Emma Watson).
Roscuro the rat (voiced with nebbishy earnestness by Dustin Hoffman) accidentally falls into the queen’s soup, killing her and prompting darkness and depression throughout the kingdom of Dor. (Soup is a very big deal in Dor, and it’s banned throughout the land after the queen’s death. Nevertheless, it’s still mentioned so often in this movie, it could be a drinking game.)
Roscuro is exiled for the act, which ultimately turns him hard and vengeful. But next comes Despereaux, a tiny, young mouse with giant ears. It’s obvious from the day he’s born that he’s different, but he grows into such a maverick, he fears nothing. He never cowers when he’s supposed to and would rather read books than eat them; his parents and older brother fret. As such, he’s also banished.
But then along comes the crass, portly serving girl Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), whose jealousy of the princess threatens the palace and, naturally, provides an opportunity for Roscuro and Despereaux to redeem themselves. Ullman, a gifted mimic with a great ear, lends her voice to some awfully clunky lines in expressing young Miggery’s envy and insecurity.
Also among the impressive vocal cast are William H. Macy, Frank Langella, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci and Richard Jenkins, but none of them is given any opportunity to let their unique, well-known screen personalities shine through. The overly pervasive voiceover, meanwhile, comes from Sigourney Weaver, who’s forced to spell out themes of courage, forgiveness and faith over and over again.
Surely children in the audience are astute enough to pick up some of these ideas on their own without being banged over the head with a soup ladle.