The oddest of the many odd things about the CGI book adaptation The Tale Of Despereaux is that the eponymous character never really feels like the protagonist; A Complicated Fairy Tale Occasionally Featuring A Mouse Named Despereaux would be a much more accurate title. All those words wouldn't leave much room for Despereaux on the poster, but that's fine; he doesn't really belong there. The upside is that Despereaux isn't a standard cookie-cutter kid-fable that rides entirely on the charisma of one tiresomely overtalented hero; the downside is that the film lacks a narrative center. It goes in so many directions that ultimately none of them seem significant.
For instance, it starts out with a lengthy, Ratatouille-esque prologue in which a rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) visits a city famed for its annual Soup Day, wherein an obsessive chef (Kevin Kline) rolls out a new recipe with the help of a weird magical vegetable golem (Stanley Tucci). But even-more-Ratatouille-esque disaster strikes, leaving the kingdom in a Sleeping Beauty-like stasis–the cancellation of Soup Day somehow also dries up the rain and hides the sun–and sending its princess (the Harry Potter film series' Emma Watson) and king into dreary mourning. Roscuro winds up in a secret rat kingdom run by the vaguest of villains; meanwhile, a loutish prison guard (Robbie Coltrane) and a pig-faced, dim-witted servant (Tracey Ullman) both mope over their sad lots in life. Amid all this, the elephant-eared Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a young mouse whose calm fearlessness frustrates his cowering parents, teachers, and elders, can barely find a foothold in the story.
Granted, the film tries to push him toward the center, largely via intrusive, overbearing narration from Sigourney Weaver. But his is the one predictable, by-the-numbers plotline among the many on display. Co-directors Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Robert Stevenhagen (an animation vet making his directorial debut) have created a pallid, chilly, but visually elaborate world based on Kate DiCamillo's Newbery-winning book, and they give their film a stately pace that's a pleasant break from the usual sugared-up kids' mayhem. But the measured forward movement and the many, many characters leave the story trying to do far too many things to do any of them particularly well, or at depth. Despereaux at least has too much ambition rather than too little, but its curiously intellectual pleasures suggest a quaint puzzle rather than a passionately loved fairy tale.