You can gauge how successful a kid's flick is by the number of scenes your child recounts immediately after leaving the theater. It doesn't bode well for Universal Studios that the lobby outside The Tale of Despereaux was remarkably subdued. The chorus of 8-year-olds seemed more concerned with potty breaks and lunch than the movie's memorable moments (of which there were few).
It's not that this handsomely animated mouse fable doesn't have its heart in the right place. The movie is blissfully devoid of pop culture references and smart-ass characters, choosing to adopt a sweeter, more earnest tone. Given the hyperkinetic bombast of most animated fare, there's plenty of room for a more thoughtful and modest 'toon. Too bad directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen don't know how to inject their film with any urgency or excitement and screenwriters Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi don't know who the hell's story they're trying to tell. (You'd think that the title might have given them a clue.)
Instead, wee ones get treated to an overly convoluted plot that follows three protagonists and relies on Sigourney Weaver to narrate passages from the novel to bridge the gaps. The characters don't have a shred of personality worth remembering, the jokes don't make you laugh, the thrills don't thrill and the pace borders on lethargic.
Here's the skinny: A ship rat named Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) accidentally causes the death of the Queen of Dor when he falls into her soup. The king, heartbroken, outlaws the annual Soup Festival, banishes all rodents, and causes the country to fall into despair. Enter Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), an unnaturally brave little mouse with ginormous ears who sets out to rescue Dor's Princess Pea (Emma Watson) from the clutches of a nefarious rat king (Frank Langella). His journey dovetails with the double-dealing actions of Roscuro and a homely chambermaid (Tracey Ullman), who has been abandoned by her father. Oh, and there's also a subplot involving the kingdom's chief soup chef and a ghost that uses fruits and veggies to give him physical form.
While all these fantastical elements probably came off as delightful and whimsical on the page, on screen Fell and Stevenhagen render them arbitrary, confusing and bizarre. Despereaux is an exercise in filmmaking ineptitude. Where their movie earns points is in its warm hand-drawn-style CG animation; instead of the plasticized gloss of Pixar and Blue Sky flicks, Despereaux has an organic elegance that feels a lot like a beautifully illustrated children's book. Unfortunately, it's not enough of a reason to drag fidgety pre-schoolers out into the snow. The bottom line is that in a post-Ratatouille world, your computer-animated rodent movie better be pretty damn tasty. The Tale of Despereaux barely qualifies as a warm bowl of mush on a cold day.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].