The Tale of Despereaux began life as a children's book, and the animated film version does its best to reproduce the sounds of a storybook: The characters, especially the brave little titular mouse, are earnest rather than wisecracking, and Sigourney Weaver speaks in soothing, empathetic tones as the narrator, just like mom. The movie might have looked a bit more like a lush picture book, though, if it had been hand-drawn rather than computer-generated.
Computers are now the default tools of the animation world, of course, and animators have produced many stunning and even personal images using them. But the animation in Despereaux is hardly state-of-the-art, and so in exchange for that token modernity we get the same waxy, deformed humans a computer could've struggled with in the late nineties. The mammals fare a bit better, but the movie's limited charm comes from its old-fashioned, homespun quality, not CGI breeze rustling through tiny CGI mouse hairs.
If computers have indeed turned animation into a more competitive game than it was a few decades ago, The Tale of Despereaux is ill-equipped; an unfair observation, perhaps, but difficult to sidestep. The elongated schedule involved with producing a feature-length cartoon renders complaints about resemblances to other recent cartoons similarly unavoidable and churlish; allow me, then, to delicately mention that following Flushed Away and especially Ratatouille, Despereaux's world of aspiring rodents is a little mustier than its predecessors. (Flushed Away is especially fair game, as Desperaux co-director Sam Fell also worked on that far better Aardman/DreamWorks production.)
None of this would be so disagreeable if Despereaux had a little more spark. The title character (voiced by Matthew Broderick) is cute enough, a tiny but big-eared mouse born without the requisite mouselike fear of cats, knives, humans, or the outside world. Eventually, his curiosity and gallantry (amusingly rendered by his calm exterior) gets him banished from mouse land; his fellow mice are especially jumpy after the prior banishment of the adventurous rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), who accidentally ruined the kingdom's annual celebration of soup. There's more to that soup subplot, and to the underground rat world, too, and a couple of sub-subplots I haven't mentioned; for a sweet-natured children's film, it juggles a surprising litany of characters and stories without much grace.
In service of the subplots is an army of voiceover actors. It is now more or less a requirement that animated films feature an all-star cast. Lacking a Jack Black or an Eddie Murphy, The Tale of Despereaux employs roughly three movies' worth of supporting players. Though more colorful actors like William H. Macy, Kevin Kline, Christopher Lloyd, and Stanley Tucci are arguably better-suited for distinctive voiceover work than the A-listers sleepwalking through so many DreamWorks cartoons, Despereaux is teeming with so many under-realized characters that few voices, celebrity or not, make any kind of impression. Hoffman vocalizes the wounded, bedraggled Roscuro with appropriately worn pathos, but Broderick is too serene; Despereaux's low-key cuteness winds up as a dominant quasi-personality trait.
As children's entertainment, The Tale of Despereaux has its heart in the right place, and might rightly be taken as an antidote to its screechier, talking-dog-laden live-action cousins. But with Pixar's advances towering on one side and classic Disney features on the other, this wan little picture might just as well slip, mouselike, into the cracks.
Great, more vermin.