Mice have enjoyed a great ride in the movies. The animated variety first rose to prominence thanks to Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse in the late 20s, enjoyed a rebirth as heroes in the late 70s and 80s with The Rescuers, The Secret of NIMH, The Great Mouse Detective, and An American Tail, and overflowed into live-action territory a few years later with Stuart Little. More recently, Flushed Away was a superior entertainment about a spoiled upper-class mouse who must learn to survive in the wild and wooly sewers, while the superb Ratatouille gave a rat a rare favorable turn in the spotlight as a culinary artist.
Adapted by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Dave) from the award-winning book by Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux features both a rat and a mouse in leading roles, but the self-described fairy tale is much more than a slapdash character study of two rodents. The setup makes it sound like a cousin to both Flushed Away and Ratatouille: a disgraced rat must learn to survive in a dark dungeon, a mouse develops a friendship with a human, and gourmet soup features prominently. Yet as the tale unfolds, it deepens and broadens its themes to a welcome degree. Though it never climbs too far above average and too often embraces the familiar, Despereaux remains a gentle and nurturing children's story, imparting lessons without being too condescending to its audience.
While Despereaux is aimed squarely at the little ones, adults may enjoy the top-notch animation and appreciate the above average performances by a celebrity voice cast (Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci) that is well matched to the characters they play, which is a rare pleasure indeed.