If nothing else, The Tale of Despereaux will be an achievement in at least one regard. It demonstrates a way to do computer animation without relying solely on the shiny, plasticized versions of the world popularized early on by Pixar and now adopted completely in the Dreamworks camp. Based on an illustrated children's book, Despereaux feels hand-drawn but better, cartoony in all the right ways and lushly, perfectly stylized.
Whether the convoluted story matches the gorgeous animation is another question. A small fable told on the large stage of a fantasyland castle, Despereaux is much more than just the story of its titular mouse. Like an interspecies game of telephone, the story follows a series of misunderstandings and prejudices among many residents of the kingdom, including the narrator herself (the always-welcome Sigourney Weaver). The film is adapted from four different books by Newberry Award winner Kate DiCamillo, and the choppy narrative structure is probably a result of all that condensing. Still, as an all-ages holiday diversion Despereaux will be hard to beat.
Dor is the kind of fantasy kingdom in which princesses talk to mice, rats have an organized community, and soup is a cause for annual celebration. Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) is a shipbound rat with a culinary nose (shades of Ratatouille to be sure) who arrives in Dor on the day of the great soup unveiling, when the king's chef serves the entire kingdom his latest concoction. A series of mistakes later, Roscuro lands in the queen's soup bowl and scares her to death; the king goes into a deep depression, the chef is rendered obsolete, and all rats are banned from the kingdom forever.
After all that exposition, we finally meet Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a tiny mouse with outsized ears and dreams to match them. His parents (Wililam H. Macy and Frances Conroy), along with the school principal (Richard Jenkins), encourage him to be timid and meek like other mice, but Desperaux dreams of chivalry and swordfights and courtly love. His dreams all come true when he meets and befriends Princess Pea (Emma Watson), left lonely by her father's depression and desperate to be rescued. But a lonely servant girl named Miggory Sow (Tracey Ullman) is so jealous of the princess that she aims to kidnap the princess and take her place, and she eventually finds an ally in Roscuro, who wants to escape exile in the rat kingdom and be welcomed by the princess the same way Despereaux is.
It's way too much plot for such a brief children's movie, especially including the back stories for characters like Miggory and a castle guard and whole scenes between the chef and a man made of vegetables. They're the kind of subplots that become comfortable detours in a book, especially when told with such imagination, but in the film they take away from the story's central drive. Despereaux and Roscuro run up and down in the castle, go through exile and salvation and wind up at the center of a rat-style gladiator event, and it's enough to try and keep up with those two. Throw in Miggory's incredibly sad story, and her conflict with the narcissistic princess, and you've got enough drama to keep Gossip Girl running for a season or two.
It's a shame that the elegance of the animation and the storytelling don't match up, since Despereaux makes for such a nice throwback to "once upon a time" and "far, far away." I'd nearly forgotten, after Enchanted and the Shrek movies, that there's a genuine delight in settling into a story with jokes that don't derive from pop culture references, and themes that aren't a reflection on anything particularly real (no offense, Wall-E). So while the elegant escapism that apparently made the book such a treasure doesn't quite translate to the screen, Despereaux remains its own quiet kind of achievement, an entertaining throwback absent irony or pretension.