In a post-Ratatouille world, an animated film about rodents and fine cuisine is the exact opposite of original. Ipso facto, The Tale of Despereaux isn’t novel in the least, though its larger problem is dreadful, sleep-inducing dullness. Rarely has a children’s film felt less assured, with Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen’s adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s book the type of semi-conceived affair that, lacking plot rhythm and incapable of generating even mild humor or pathos, stumbles at nearly every turn.
Narrated by Sigourney Weaver and voiced by an all-star cast that seems to have recorded their dialogue in a room pumped full of sleeping gas, this saga concerns sad princess Pea (Emma Watson), a nondescript rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), and a big-eared mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) who doesn’t cower like the rest of his species but, instead, dreams of adventure. When Roscuro accidentally spoils the land of Dor’s festive Soup Day, in which the citizenry nearly explodes with ecstasy over flavorful aromas, soup is outlawed, the land goes literally dark, and Pea becomes forlorn. Enter Despereaux to save the day, through limp action sequences that have been edited and scored with a jaggedness that obliterates any sense of coherent momentum.
The plot is uneven, splitting time between three protagonists who together feature zero endearing defining traits, while the animation that brings these fairy-tale creatures to life is flat, sluggish, and decidedly B-grade when compared to this year’s (or even 2005’s) offerings from Pixar and DreamWorks. If Tale of Despereaux were actively attempting to forge a new, more demure, and thoughtful animated-kids-film formula, its less graceful elements might be more forgivable. Yet Fell and Stevenhagen’s contribution to the genre is simply inept, unable to deliver the excitement, hilarity, poignancy, insightfulness, or basic narrative urgency that such material—heck, any material—demands.