The visuals are rich and inviting but a complicated three-part story makes an uneasy transition to screen for the well-loved book by Kate DiCamillo.
Sigourney Weaver narrates the story, beginning with the description of a hero we will not meet for a while, the first of several confusing narrative zig-zags. Before we can meet the title character we must follow a sea-faring rat named Roscuro (voice of Dustin Hoffman) who causes a lot of trouble when he falls into a bowl of soup. And this is not just any soup. This is the soup of the queen of Dor, a country where soup is the national passion. The most important day of the year is the day the new soup presented by the royal chef (voice of Kevin Kline), a true artiste with a muse made of vegetables. Curious Roscuro accidentally falls into the bowl of the queen and she is so shocked that she dies. The grieving king bans soup — and rats — and the kingdom becomes cold and sad, the skies perpetually overcast but never finding the release of rain.
Meanwhile a small mouse with very big ears named Despereaux (voice of Matthew Broderick) cannot seem to learn important mouse skills like cowering. He is brave, adventuresome, and chivalrous. He is a gentleman. And a lonely gap-toothed scullery maid envies the princess and begins to think maybe she should replace her.
The animation is truly magnificent, brilliantly imagined and gorgeously realized. There are a hundred brilliant details from the play of light in the dungeon to the dash across the mousetraps and an Archimboldo-inspired vegetable-man muse. The vistas are jewel-toned and glowing and the physical properties are wonderfully real and thrillingly vivid. The story, however, is less so, over-complicated and murky. What happens in front of those beautiful backgrounds is never quite as interesting as the setting.