“The Tale of Despereaux” has a classic fairy-tale structure and stunning animation. But it’s missing two big components: excitement and humor.
A friend told me her young nephew enjoyed the film exactly because it wasn’t smart-alecky. But a movie doesn’t have to be snarky to be funny. While “The Tale of Despereaux” has its moments of visual wonder, it is distinctly short of laughs, smart-aleck or otherwise.
The film actually has two plot tracks. The first deals with a sea-going rat, Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), whose best friend, a sailor, has told him tales of the Kingdom of Dor, home of the world’s greatest soups. When they dock at Dor, Roscuro takes off in search of the famed soup and, in his eagerness, falls into the queen’s bowl. She drops dead of shock – and the king, in his grief, bans both soup and rats (as though rats were otherwise welcome). This plunges the whole kingdom into a funk, not to mention a vegetable-killing drought. And it sets Roscuro up to be both a villain and a redeemed hero.
Meanwhile, a young mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) comes of age – but he’s different from other mice. For one thing, he’s brave, not timid (though most of the mice I’ve encountered have the guts of burglars). He would rather read books than eat them. And he loves the idea of being a gentleman, someone who selflessly helps others. So when he finds the unhappy princess (Emma Watson), who is also a victim of her father’s soup-banning melancholy, he vows to help her change her father’s mind.
There’s a lot of plot, probably too much for younger viewers, and a certain amount of action. But there’s little suspense or even tension. The story’s action set-pieces will seem familiar to anyone who’s seen “Ratatouille” or “Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones.”
Otherwise, “Tale of Despereaux” seems destined to bore a lot of parents and wind up as a huge hit on DVD. Years from now, formerly young fans will scan the DVD box and says, “I can’t believe I liked this as a kid.”