DVD Release Date:  April 7, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  December 19, 2008
Rating:  G
Genre:  Adventure, Animation, Kids/Family
Run Time:  94 min.
Director:  Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen
Voices by:  Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci

Parents, if you want your children to learn about justice, honor and telling the truth, you could do a lot worse than to take them to The Tale of Despereaux, a cluttered but enjoyable adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s (Because of Winn-Dixie) charming book of the same name.

Despereaux is, in one sense, the story of a tiny mouse with large ears and a love of books, but it’s also much more. It’s the story of a princess (Emma Watson) who can’t free herself from the sadness that surrounds her. It’s the story of a rat, Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), who doesn’t scurry from sunlight but seeks it out. And it’s the story of a girl, Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), who dreams of working in the king’s castle. Although these separate story threads are enjoyable on their own, the film works hard—struggles, even—to bring them together into a cohesive whole. However, these problems can be forgiven in light of the film’s pleasant spirit and admirable themes.

Unlike DiCamillo’s novel, the film begins with the story of Roscuro, a rat who loves the light.

Despereaux Tilling is then introduced as an undersized mouse with oversized ears, but one who never learned that mice are supposed to cower in fear. This worries his parents, who explain, “You can’t be a mouse if you don’t learn to be afraid.” He fearlessly steals cheese from mousetraps. He draws a picture of a cat in his notebook (“He named it Fluffy,” says his father, worryingly.), and rather than eat the glue and paper pages from books, Despereaux has a talent for reading the words and stories on the page.

Inspired by those stories, Despereaux sets out to liberate Princess Pea. He speaks to the princess—another violation of mouse rules—but is discovered in the act, and is put on trial before the Mouse Council, which banishes Despereaux to Ratworld, but not before Despereaux promises to follow through on his promise to free the princess. To do that, he’ll need the help of Roscuro.

We also meet Miggery Sow, a farmhand who shovels slop for pigs but longs to work in the king’s castle. Through the cruel intentions of others, she winds up where she’s always wanted to be—as a servant to Princess Pea. Her fleeting devotion to the princess is part of a larger story involving her heritage—as noted earlier, there are a lot of characters and storylines jumbled together in The Tale of Despereaux.

So what’s to like? For starters, the title character is admirable in his willingness to help others, and in the way he carries out his ideas of what it means to be “a gentleman.” He’s also not afraid to be different, nor is Roscuro. The film has a message about the dangers of nonconformity, but that nonconformity is more about acceptance of personal talent and physical appearance than it is about flouting moral guidelines. The “rules” that Despereaux breaks are not well explained by any of those who have authority over him, so younger viewers looking for ammunition in the film to defy the authority figures in their own lives will be disappointed (unless those authority figures have done as poor a job of explaining their guidelines as have Despereaux’s parents, and the mouse council).