[Screen It]

(2008) (voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman) (G)

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Computer Animated Adventure: A small but courageous mouse bucks tradition by not being afraid and instead sets out to rescue a human princess trapped in a land of gloom and doom that's accidentally become that way due to the actions of a sea traveling rat.
In the land of Dor, everyone is happy, especially when Soup Day rolls around and chef Andre (voice of KEVIN KLINE), with the help of his vegetable and fruit-based friend Boldo (voice of STANLEY TUCCI), reveals his latest savory creation for the royal family. This time, however, epicurean rat Roscuro (voice of DUSTIN HOFFMAN) has arrived via a sailing ship and accidentally falls in the Queen's soup, leading to her shock and untimely demise.

As a result, the grieving King not only outlaws soup, but also makes rats illegal. That results in Roscuro and the rest of his kind being banished in Ratworld deep down inside the castle's dungeon where Gregory (voice of ROBBIE COLTRANE) guards over no one in particular and grouses about the slop brought to him by servant girl Miggory Sow (voice of TRACEY ULLMAN).

Back up top, Princess Pea (voice of EMMA WATSON) is despondent over her father's grief, the joy vanishing from the land and its people, and a perpetual cloudiness that yields no rain, leaving everyone miserable. That is, except for Despereaux (voice of MATTHEW BRODERICK), a tiny mousy with huge ears. His lack of fear worries his parents, Lester (voice of WILLIAM H. MACY) and Antoinette (voice of FRANCES CONROY), who think he should cower like his older brother, Furlough (voice of TONY HALE), and the rest of the Mouseworld population, and eat books rather than read them.

But that's exactly what he does -- entranced by a tale of a knight battling to save an unhappy princess -- but that and his overall nature end up getting him banished down to Ratworld where the sadistic rat leader, Botticelli (voice of CIARAN HINDS), entertains the masses by offering Despereaux to a huge cat.

Sensing a kindred spirit, Roscuro saves the plucky mouse, but when the rat goes to apologize to the Princess, she freaks out and tries to have him killed. That results in him aligning with Miggory, a farm girl turned servant with delusions of being the princess. From that point on, and like his literary hero and inspiration, Despereaux sets out to save the day and Princess Pea from her misery.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While it's obviously necessary to keep them around, people have no problem feeding their pets at home, and many enjoy doing the same at zoos and farms when the chance is provided to interact with such critters. Yet, the line is usually drawn with animals who take such matters into their own hands, if you will, whether that's feeding on people (such as mosquitoes and ticks) or on our food (including flies, cockroaches, mice and the worst of all for many, rats).

Despite that being a near universal (or at least global) aversion, for the second time in two years we have a tale -- computer-generated and aimed mostly at kids but designed to appease adults as well -- that revolves around rats and their love of food. And we're not talking about just the usual garbage, but the finer culinary things in life.

Granted, these sorts of films take years to create, and the latest is based on the 2004 book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo. Nonetheless, and due to their proximity in both time, characters and love of and plot related to food, it's quite likely that 2007's "Ratatouille" will come to many mind while watching this year's rodent and food offering, "The Tale of Despereaux."

And for that matter, another animated flick might make the same memory trip, one featuring a similarly unlikely "prince" (green as a swamp ogre, wait, that's what he is) and an unhappy princess in the comedy "Shrek." Yes, like that pic, this one arrives in fairy tale form, complete with a narrator, and some semi-surreal renderings of humans (long, stretchy faces and disproportionate body parts, etc.). Thankfully, however, there are no pop culture references, fart jokes or the like.

Instead, directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen -- working from Gary Ross' adaptation of DiCamillo's work -- tells a fairly straightforward fantasy tale with enough bits of humor and action/adventure that parents, guardians and/or babysitters likely won't mind sitting through the offering that should also obviously appeal to and decently entertain the younger set.

That said, this is no "Ratatouille," either in appearance or, more notably, characterizations, plot and/or overall creative aura. On the first matter, that's not to imply that it looks bad by any means, and some of the visuals ranging from the characters to the backgrounds have been imaginatively rendered. It's just that the fine details aren't there to the same level as what Pixar routinely delivers.

Of course, that's no big deal if the storytelling brings up the slack, but that's where the film also comes up somewhat short. As is the case with the visuals, it's certainly not substandard. It's also not stellar, and instead comes off as serviceable. Occasional narration by Sigourney Weaver tries to be creative and fun by somewhat playing against that tool's usual trappings, but the narrative dialogue (that includes various life observations and lessons) seems geared more for kids than all audiences as it spells out everything most older viewers will have already discerned.

At times, the straightforward tale -- concerning the title character not being a usual mouse who then gets caught up in trying to live out his newfound love of knightly stories -- ends up including a series of flashbacks detailing supporting characters' back-stories that have lead them to where they are now in the main one.

It somewhat gives those parts an "Amelie" vibe, but those moments feel a bit too shoehorned into the overall proceedings, as if the filmmakers were trying to be extra creative (having not read the original book, I can't attest to the presence or absence of such devices). As far as the vocal work, it's fine across the board from an array of well-known performers, with some easily identifiable, and others less so (with the latter always preferable to avoid being reminded of who's behind the voices), while the adventurous score by William Ross is pitch-perfect for the proceedings.

Again, none of what's offered is bad or poorly executed, and it's a decently entertaining diversion (if perhaps a bit too violent for a G rated film). But in the face of that exemplary rat tale that preceded it by a year, this one feels, if you'll pardon the pun, mousy in comparison although it's far from ratty. "The Tale of Despereaux" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 13, 2008 / Posted December 19, 2008

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