The Tale of Despereaux

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Anyone trying to market an animated film without the words Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks attached faces an uphill battle, and Universal’s “The Tale of Despereaux” is a prime example of why that is: because cartoons by upstarts tend to be mediocre.

Based on Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book that I’ve never heard of but that I assume is beloved because all children’s books that get turned into movies are described as “beloved,” “Despereaux” is set in a far-off kingdom such as those seen in fairy tales. There’s a castle, a royal family, a narrator (Sigourney Weaver), the whole nine yards. It’s not one of those satirical “Shrek” kingdoms, either. This is G-rated, irony-free family fare.

The story starts off being about Roscuro (voice of Dustin Hoffman), a rat from a sailing ship who stops off in the kingdom of Dor and accidentally causes major trouble on national Soup Day. Soup is a big deal in Dor, you see, prepared by the exacting Chef Andre (Kevin Kline), but the Roscuro-caused tragedy leads the king to ban both rats and soup. Why rats weren’t banned in the first place, I don’t know.

So the kingdom is super-sad, especially Princess Pea (Emma Watson), and it’s during this period of mourning that the actual star of the film, Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), comes around. He’s a wee mouse, wee even by mouse standards, who is distinct among his peers for being unafraid of all the things mice are usually afraid of. That makes him an outcast, as mice are very proud of their cowardice. “You can’t be a mouse if you don’t learn to be afraid!” says the principal at his mouse school (Richard Jenkins). “There are so many wonderful things in life to be afraid of, if you just learn how scary they are!”

Despereaux’s temperament makes him ideally suited for the heroic tasks that lie before him, which include befriending Princess Pea. Meanwhile, Roscuro is plotting revenge for his banishment — I see that in the book he’s a flat-out antagonist, while the movie makes him more of a flawed hero — and an ugly maid named Miggery (Tracey Ullman) is looking for happiness.

The film takes a long time to find its way, with everything before Despereaux’s introduction feeling like an overlong prologue; even once it’s on track, it has a hard time juggling the shifting story lines and characters. But it’s well-served by its fairy-tale whimsicality and energetic computer animation, and there are some pleasant chuckles to be had in the particulars of the cute story. If your kids have been clamoring to see it, allowing them to do so won’t hurt you any.

C+ (1 hr., 40 min.; G, harmless.)

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