'The Tale of Despereaux'


There's a fitting aura of gloom and despair surrounding "The Tale of Despereaux," a decidedly unfrilly fairy tale about a tiny mouse with large ears and a larger heart who finds redemption in a kingdom of darkness.

Although the artfully rendered CG animation is quite lovely, the less-than-enchanting scripting is another story.

In making the leap to the big screen from Kate DiCamillo's Newbery Medal-winning 2003 novel, "The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread," a considerable amount of magic and charm appears to have been lost in the translation.

What remains — particularly the rodent and the soup part — can't help but invite comparisons to "Ratatouille," and not in a favorable way.

Given the absence of fresh animated fare, families might still initially take the bait, but the picture's murkier recesses could prove too intense for the kiddies.

Co-directed by Sam Fell, who went the rat route with the entertaining "Flushed Away," and first-timer Rob Stevenhagen, the film centers on one Despereaux Tilling (voiced by Matthew Broderick), a brave little mouse whose un-mouselike behavior — he's known to converse with humans and prefers to read books rather than eat them — lands him in big trouble.

He's banished from the Mouseworld and sent to the much darker Ratworld, presided over by the sinister Botticelli (Ciaran Hinds), who bears a strong resemblance to Nosferatu (or would that be NosfeRATu?).

Fortunately, he's shown the ropes by another recent arrival, Roscuro, a Ratso Rizzo sort of a rat, voiced, natch, by Dustin Hoffman, while finding himself smitten with the fair, human Princess Pea (Emma Watson), who's a virtual prisoner in her father's grim castle.

Despereaux ultimately will rise to those necessarily heroic heights, but the film strangely never follows suit.

Although screenwriter Gary Ross has done well with underdogs ("Seabiscuit," "Dave"), in adapting the DiCamillo novel it's as if he and co-directors Fell and Stevenhagen cut off the tale with a carving knife.

The transitions between the parallel Despereaux and Roscuro stories are choppy, while the rest of the characters never feel satisfyingly developed despite the best efforts of an all-star voice cast including Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy and Frank Langella.

Sigourney Weaver, meanwhile, handles the curiously detached narration.

The flatly generic results certainly appear at odds with the picture's stirring visual style, which pays homage to the great Flemish artists, while lending a remarkable warmth missing in most computer-generated enterprises.