THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX (Gen, 93 mins) Family, Drama, Comedy, Action. Featuring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Emma Watson, Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Lloyd, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Robbie Coltrane, William H. Macy. Directors: Sam Fell, Robert Stevenhagen.
Director Sam Fell (Flushed Away) returns to the rodent underworld with first-time co-director Robert Stevenhagen for this visually colourful yet emotionally hollow fable based on the award-winning book by Kate DiCamillo.
Set in a magical kingdom overcome by grief, The Tale Of Despereaux is almost as gloomy and glum as its characters, never matching the vibrancy or energy of the computer animation as one plucky mouse risks everything to save a friend from being eaten alive by rats.
Comparisons with Ratatouille are inevitable, considering both pictures deal with heroes overcoming their diminutive stature to prove themselves giants when it matters most.
However, Fell and Stevenhagen"s vision pales next to Pixar"s masterpiece of yesteryear, lacking comedy, sweetness and the big crescendo these stories of triumph against adversity surely deserve.
Sigourney Weaver"s narration provides the flimsy glue between scenes, welcoming us to the far off realm of Dor, where 'Christmas was nothing compared to soup day.'
On the first Sunday of every spring, royal chef Andre (voiced by Kline) and his loyal assistant Boldo (Tucci) unveil the year"s royal concoction.
Darkness descends after an inquisitive rat called Roscuro (Hoffman) falls into the soup, causing the Queen to collapse headfirst into her bowl of piping hot broth, and die.
Consumed by grief, the King decrees that the selling, making and eating of soup are all outlawed, and vermin are banished from Dor.
One tiny creature, a mouse with unusually large ears called Despereaux Tilling (Broderick), dares to strike up a tender friendship with the King"s daughter, Princess Pea (Watson).
When the rest of Mouseworld discovers his reckless actions, Despereaux is cast out into violent Ratworld, where he meets Roscuro, and persuades the rat to seek forgiveness from the princess.
Unfortunately, Pea reacts badly and Roscuro plots revenge with the help of servant girl Miggery Sow (Ullman), who harbours an impossible dream to become a princess.
Together they plot to kidnap Pea and spirit her away to Ratworld, where the sinister Botticelli (Hinds) presides over this subterranean lair of decay.
Thus, Despereaux races against time to rescue Pea from her hellish predicament.
The Tale Of Despereaux is all sweetness but no light, not once stirring the soul as the tiny hero proves that size doesn"t matter because actions speak louder the words.
An opening set piece involving the creation of the soup is quite breathtaking but visually, nothing else in Fell and Stevenhagen"s film comes close to this ambitious, initial flourish.
Cutting back and forth between parallel storylines involving Despereaux, Roscuro, Pea and Miggery stymies any dramatic momentum.
Vocal performances are similarly flat though by no means lifeless, although Dustin Hoffman injected far more pizzazz into his martial arts mentor in Kung Fu Panda.
Very young viewers may need to cover their eyes in scenes with Botticelli"s cat.