There's no arguing that little Despereaux Tilling, with his big ears, twitchy, whiskery nose, and dashing red hat, is a mouse to be adored. In The Tale of Despereaux - the elaborate, computer-animated adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's Newbury Medal-winning children's novel - the tiny, intrepid rodent is so cute it's impossible not to ooh and aww, just looking at him.
Which is a good thing, because you'll need something to get you through the long stretches of fairytale pastiche that make up this overwrought yarn about individuality, courage, grief and forgiveness.
With echoes of (in no particular order) Ratatouille, Flushed Away, Gulliver's Travels, Shrek, and at least a half-dozen Grimms fables, The Tale of Despereaux transpires in the kingdom of Dor, an island land presided over by a royal clan with a penchant for soup. Yes, every year brings a soup festival around, in which the royal chef creates an amazing new broth to set the people's tastebuds atwitter. The aroma wafts up from the palace kitchen, into the courtyards and around town. Gastronomic ecstasy ensues.
Gastronomic ecstasy that turns tragic with the arrival of Roscuro (the voice of Dustin Hoffman), a scruffy sea rat that inadvertently tumbles into the queen's bowl, causing her to yelp, "There's a rat in my soup!" Soon thereafter, she dies.
The king declares that from now on rats are to be outlawed, exterminated, and that there will be no more soup. The happy Dorians are plunged into despair. The sun won't shine, the land turns gray (a picture of Dorians gray?), the king mopes, and his beautiful daughter, Princess Pea (Emma Watson), sits sad and alone.
Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a mouse unlike any other - he's unafraid, and doesn't know how to scurry or cower - befriends Pea and tries to make things right.
But mouse and rat are a big misunderstanding away from forging an alliance, while directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen introduce a sour-minded scullery maid (Tracy Ullman); the respective subterranean environs of Mouseworld and Ratworld; a gladiator arena where a fierce cat reigns supreme; and more plot strands than the story's spools of thread can possibly tie together. (The subtitle of DiCamillo's best-seller: "Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread.")
Inspired less by Timothy Basil Eringby's original book illustrations and more by Brueghel and Vermeer, The Tale of Despereaux has a painterly, Middle Ages sheen. At times, the visual style seems too classy - the cartoon capers of talking vermin at odds with the muted colors and composition.
Narrated in an overbearing, once-upon-a-time timbre by Sigourney Weaver ("What happens when you make something illegal that's a natural part of the world?"), Despereaux is a little too desperate to be loved.
But that mouse! Did I say he's cute?
The Tale of Despereaux **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen. With the voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman and Sigourney Weaver. Distributed by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour, 34 mins.
Parent's guide: G (for all audiences)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.