Kate DiCamillo’s delectable novel about rodents, royals and the restorative properties of soup gets the star-laden, CG-animated bigscreen treatment in “The Tale of Despereaux.” Nobly striving to realize the source material’s many intricacies and chronological shifts, this graphically well-rendered kidpic is less crass and mouthy than many recent feature-length toons, but also more sluggish and ungainly as it tries to approximate DiCamillo’s singularly delicate tone. Drawn by a name-heavy voice cast, family auds should lap up the Universal release in healthy but hardly “Ratatouille”-sized numbers. Ancillary biz looks tasty.
DiCamillo’s 2004 Newbery Medal winner tells the story of a valiant mouse, a vengeful rat, an ill-treated servant girl and the beautiful princess who, in different ways, transfixed them all. The novel was written in a hushed, almost incantatory prose style, with a tender direct address to the reader that allowed the author’s moral insights — about the virtues of nonconformity, the power of storytelling and the universal need for forgiveness and redemption — to sink in without condescension.
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Yet condescension ends up creeping into the screenplay by “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit” director Gary Ross (with screen story credited to Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi), due to lecturesome voiceover narration (by Sigourney Weaver) that spells out every last nuance as the film proceeds along its multiple parallel threads.
The first of these threads concerns the rat Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), who arrives in the kingdom of Dor in time for the unveiling of the castle cook’s latest concoction. Soup is a big deal in Dor — at least, until hungry Roscuro accidentally falls from a chandelier and lands in the queen’s bowl, the shock of which hastens Her Majesty’s death and impels the heartbroken king to issue a royal ban on soup and rats.
In a different timeframe, deep within the castle’s walls, a runty little mouse named Despereaux Tilling (Matthew Broderick) is born. Mentally as well as physically, Despereaux is different from other mice: He’s brave, literate and deeply curious about the human world, and the pic spends too much time on comic-psychobabble sequences of Despereaux’s parents worriedly discussing their son’s rebellious tendencies (“He never cowers!”).
One of the rules of this storybook realm is that mice, rats and humans speak the same language, so it’s not long before Despereaux forges a heartfelt bond with the lovely, grief-stricken Princess Pea (Emma Watson) — an unspeakable transgression in the mouse world, for which he is banished to the dungeon to be preyed upon by fearsome rats. There, he crosses paths with Roscuro, who’s tormented by his inadvertent role in the queen’s death, and plump, freckled Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), a lowly scullery maid as unattractive as her name.
In keeping with the novel, with its free-flowing compassion for all creatures great and small, the characters here are fuller and more complicated than one would expect. Roscuro is unusually introspective for a rat (as in “Kung Fu Panda,” Hoffman delivers the toon’s standout vocal turn), and his guilt ultimately leads him on a twisted quest for revenge that endangers the princess — and calls forth Despereaux’s inner hero.
Visually, these critters hew closer to subdued 3-D photorealism than the more colorful, cartoonish style of, say, the “Madagascar” franchise. Action is confined almost entirely to the castle, elegantly detailed by production designer Evgeni Tomov and lensed with an emphasis on moody grays and browns by Brad Blackbourn. While beautiful enough to look at (and nicely supported by William Ross’ score), the film feels emotionally muted as a result, and often turns downright laborious as it tries to shift gracefully from one character strand to the next.
As if to compensate, helmers Sam Fell (“Flushed Away”) and Rob Stevenhagen crank up the action elsewhere. Among their innovations are the lively kitchen sequences, in which a strikingly designed culinary spirit, composed entirely of fresh produce, inspires the cook’s soup recipes. Less successful are the gladiatorial bloodsports held in the rats’ underground lair — which, though hardly violent enough to call the G rating into question, are sufficiently unpleasant to suggest that DiCamillo avoided describing such horrors for a reason.