The Tale of Despereaux tells three fairy tales at once - none of them especially well or with any sort of rhythm or even much in the way of wit. Kids will get antsy, wondering why their favorite characters disappear for long stretches of the film, while adults will wonder just when this scattershot approach to storytelling will congeal into something resembling coherence.
Sadly, it never really does.
Despereaux, the title character, is a big-eared mouse who refuses to act like the other mice. Cute story, maybe, especially with Matthew Broderick using his best "gee-whiz" voice to bring the character to life.
But poor Despereaux gets short shrift for a character with top billing. He's only in about one-third of the movie. The rest of the time, we're following either the adventures of a hapless rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), whose antics persuade a whole kingdom to swear off soup forever, or the sad tale of a chubby servant girl (Tracey Ullman) with dreams of becoming a princess.
The three stories are supposed to dovetail. But that doesn't happen, except in the most forced sort of way, and the result is a film that seems less interested in telling a story than in moralizing to its young audience about the value of individuality, the danger of prejudging someone, the folly of jumping to conclusions, the joys of altruism, the sorrows of pettiness.
Who, whether they're 4 or 40, wants to sit through 100 minutes of that?
Most of the movie is told from a mouse-eye view (or rat's-eye, when Roscuro is center stage), and the effect is visually intriguing - at least for a while. But all the shots of huge, looming faces and giant pots and saucers soon grow wearying - as does the effort needed to figure out whose story the movie is focusing on at any given moment.
Then again, this is a movie that starts off with a queen drowning in a bowl of soup (no, it's not played for laughs). And it doesn't get a whole lot better, or creative, from there.
Certainly, the list of vocal talent is impressive. Besides Broderick, Hoffman and Ullman, there's Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Robbie Coltrane, Frank Langella and Christopher Lloyd. But beware of animated films that lean on the famous names of their vocal cast for legitimacy; it's usually a sign the movie can't stand on its own.
Is there anything to like? This guy made of vegetables (and voiced with an outrageous French accent by Stanley Tucci) was pretty cool, certainly not something you see every day. And I could listen to Emma Watson's British lilt for hours (she plays a princess who likes mice, hates rats and wishes her father the king would let his subjects drink soup once again). Outside of that, not much. All in all, Despereaux is a pretty desperate film.
The Tale of Despereaux
(Universal Pictures) Featuring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson. Directed by Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen. Rated G. Time 100 minutes.