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Originally published December 18, 2008 at 2:07 PM | Page modified December 18, 2008 at 9:41 PM

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Movie review

"Despereaux" has some nice moments but falls a bit flat

"The Tale of Despereaux" is a curiously dull and depressed animated feature that doesn't live up to its source, a Newbery Honor-winning children's book by Kate DiCamillo.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) prepares to impress his friends in the animated "Tale of Despereaux."

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Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) prepares to impress his friends in the animated "Tale of Despereaux."

Movie review 2 stars

"The Tale of Despereaux," with vocal performances by Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Frank Langella, William H. Macy, Sigourney Weaver. Directed by Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen, from a screenplay by Gary Ross, Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, based on the book by Kate DiCamillo. 87 minutes. Rated G. Several theaters.

For those who can't tell the difference between rats and mice, the contrast could not be clearer in the downbeat fable "The Tale of Despereaux."

Based on the four-part, Newbery Honor-winning children's book by Kate DiCamillo, "Despereaux" concerns a series of unfortunate events following a royal screw-up by Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a well-meaning, seafaring rat who loves the ocean air.

Taking shore leave for an annual festival built around the making of soup for a king's family, Roscuro gets a little too close to the action and tumbles into the queen's bowl, killing her from fright.

Part of what "Despereaux" is about is the way seemingly disparate actions and destinies can be linked through random events. Thus, Roscuro's accident not only results in his imprisonment in the king's dungeon — a nightmarish world called Ratland, ruled by the smiling tyrant of a mayor (Frank Langella) — it overlaps the fates of several other characters.

First, there's Despereaux Tilling (Matthew Broderick), a young, tiny mouse (tiny even by mouse standards) born with a very unrodentlike fearlessness and deep curiosity (he's more likely to read old books than eat them). He also has a huge pair of ears that give him Superman's powerful hearing and Batman's ability to glide at great heights.

Then there's Princess Pea (Emma Watson), a human girl whom Despereaux loves and whose widower father keeps her at remove. Finally, there's young Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), a peasant who dreams of wearing the princess's crown but suffers cauliflower ears from being hit all day long.

Banished from Mouseland (a much nicer place than Ratland) for being too different, Despereaux turns hero when the rats capture Princess Pea. Miggery is also locked up, and an unwilling Roscuro is under pressure from the Mayor to see to the princess's horrible demise.

Besides rescuing, what all of these characters need is understanding and forgiveness — or the opportunity to forgive. Writers Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit"), and Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi ("Alvin and the Chipmunks") give a nice screenworthy shape to DiCamillo's book, though the adaptation is relentlessly grim, even depressed, despite plenty of action.

Directors Sam Fell ("Flushed Away") and first-timer Robert Stevenhagen can't quite locate a core of buoyant energy in the film as a whole, though there are plenty of nice moments. Early in the film, when Roscuro and his pal, a human sailor, start getting their land legs in a busy port town, it's easy to feel their pleasure in exploring a thriving community.

"Despereaux's" look, which seems partly inspired by the paintings of Flemish masters, loses its novelty after a while, leaving one with visual monotony. Vocal performances, including Sigourney Weaver's curiously dull narration, don't add much to a lackluster project.

Where "The Tale of Despereaux" went awry, I'm not sure. But it doesn't live up to its material.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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